back to article Historian warns against copyright-fight heavy hitting

Copyright-dependent industries risk alienating the public and undermining intellectual property laws with their unregulated and aggressive tactics, according to an historian who has studied nearly 400 years of piracy and intellectual property law. Adrian Johns, a professor of history at Chicago University, told technology law …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No shit Sherlock?

    Good work Prof. Just about what several million sensible people have been saying for years. Even within the media industry, there have been cautionary voices warning about the perils of attacking your own customer base.

    Here in the UK though, I'd suggest we have a more pressing problem than this, or even the Digital Economy Bill. And that is, how far are our politicians bought and paid for by the media industry? That industry has only to produce a wish list and politicians and bureaucrats are falling over themselves to grant it. We're dealing with something far deeper than a difference of opinion over digital rights - we're dealing with people who ought to be representing us, but who are clearly bought and paid for. When laws that represent the values of vested interests are pushed through against the palpable will of voters, then something is very seriously wrong with our democracy.

    I've seen claims that the majority of people have made illegal downloads at some time. As a point of democratic principle, how can something that most of us do be illegal?

    While we all argue about digital rights, I think we need a far more fundamental enquiry into lobbying systems and the power of the media industry over what are supposed to be our elected representatives. Not to mention a certain all-powerful non-elected non-representative.

    1. The BigYin

      Appeal to Common Practice

      "As a point of democratic principle, how can something that most of us do be illegal?"

      Your argument is an example of "Appeal to Common Practice" and therefore fallacious.

      I am not disagreeing that copyright laws and the punishments are a crock of shit that favour the BPI/RIAA over the artist/consumer, but you need to construct a better argument to stand a chance.

      How about "The proposals entrench a business model that is slowly becoming out of date and creates artificial barriers to trade. This stifles innovation, the economy and start-up business to the benefit of the incumbent players and reduces the ability of workers within the industry ("artists") to earn a fair wage, expect for a few big-names. It should not be up to the state to protect someone's business model (or protect them from their poor business choices) except in absolute extremis where the stability of the state itself is affected. The state should ensure that its populace are served by businesses that work for that populace and provide them the services they want, rather than assist business to work against the wishes of the populace."


      1 - Get rid of DVD region-locking (regions are fine, languages and all, just no locking please).

      2 - Allow me to format shift for my own use (not legal in the UK).

      3 - Allow free trade (grey imports etc, this will reduce price-fixing).

      I am sure you can think of more.

      1. mfioretti

        "Appeal to Common Practice"

        The BigYin said;

        "As a point of democratic principle, how can something that most of us do be illegal?"

        Your argument is an example of "Appeal to Common Practice" and therefore fallacious... you need to construct a better argument to stand a chance.

        VERY well said, thanks. This particular argument against illegal filesharing is simply ridiculous and puts under a bad light everything else people try to say about copyright reform. It's like paying taxes. If it's wrong, it's wrong in itself for some other reason, not because many people hate or love doing it.

      2. MyHeadIsSpinning

        @The Big Yin

        "Your argument is an example of 'Appeal to Common Practice' and therefore fallacious."

        Googled 'fallacious'; logical or deductive fallacy.

        Google 'falacy'; misconception due to fault in deductive reasoning.

        The argument made re 'from a democratic view; if most people are doing it, how can it be illegal?" is not fallacious; because in an ideal world a democracy ('demo' meaning people, 'cracy' referring to the state), a democratic state with democratic laws would reflect the will of the majority of the people. This is idealism, this is not real life. You wouldn't call 'Star Trek' fallacious because it was an ideallist representation of a socialist state, would you?

        The law has nothing to do with justice (because it cannot be truly impartial, it can never by truly just); so why shouldn't it be democratic?

        The argument is less of an argument than it is a statement of idealism, and therefore cannot be truly fallacious for all that it is arguably whimsical.

        1. Ben 42
          Paris Hilton

          You still don't understand

          Your Star Trek analogy indicates that you still don't actually understand what a fallacy is. True, Star Trek itself cannot be a fallacy - it's just a fictional world, not an argument as such. Now, was Roddenberry trying to make a point with his Star Trek world? Possibly, but such a point would have to be based on some other logic, not just "it works in Star Trek so it must be true" or it would, in fact, be a fallacy (I suppose appeal to authority, if you consider Star Trek an authority).

          But in reality the whole Star Trek discussion is a fallacy in itself - specifically a red herring. It has nothing to do with the problem in the original post so it can only have been brought up to distract from that problem. Look at it this way (and I'm stealing this from a list of fallacies I found online): Many people during the Black plague believed that demons caused disease. Did that make them right? Many people believe that piracy is acceptable. Does that make it right? Hopefully it's obvious that the answer is "no".

          To be fair, the original post only mentions "legal", not "right", but one would hope that the goal is to make laws that _are_ right. The flaws of the current legal system should not be an excuse to throw logic out the window and start making even more flawed laws.

          Note, however, that I'm not saying piracy is right or wrong. It's a complex question that's not going to be answered in one comment from me, but I do know that "everyone's doing it" is a lousy argument either way.

          Paris, because she understands fellati...err, fallacies.;-)

    2. MyHeadIsSpinning

      @John 186

      "As a point of democratic principle, how can something that most of us do be illegal?"

      The world would be a different place if that were applied to law in practice.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Artists doing better, BPI members doing worse

    Can I refer my right honourable gentlemen to the study the Times did some time ago:

    The actual writers/makers/performers of music are doing BETTER, it's the BPI distributors that are doing worse, and they are doing worse as an inevitable consequence of losing control of the distribution channel.

    This is no bad thing, and you should not let the BPI try to keep control of a GROWING market. And it is growing, see the Times Story.

    More to the point, do you want to go to an election defending a law that will largely be written by Peter "denies any wrongdoing" Mandelson? Would you vote for Mandelson, and if you wouldn't why would anyone vote for you who defends Mandelson?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      If Mandy wants to help creative industries

      If Mandy wants to help creative industries, then the numbers say he should not help the big distributors. Because the situation today shows artists doing better than ever.

      Look, at the 'to' list on this BPI email where they think they have it stitched up:

      The main players are EMI, Sony and Warner. Yet if iTunes does the distribution and the musicians make the music, where do these 3 fit in?? Their plastic disc making business will inevitably fail.

      There is no future here for them, only a long drawn out death as they attack the internet. So why are we proposing building a copyright system around the British PHONOGRAPHIC industry?

      Really MPs need to reject Mandy's bill, reexamine the nonsense they've been told and don't go introducing the basis for internet filtering. Once you decide you can filter for a Beyonce track, you've decided you can filter for anything!

      Perhaps I say something that offends you, and you demand elReg be censored. Perhaps some TV program offends some group and youtube gets censored. In a few moves you've killed the Internet in the UK. Well if it's OK to filter a site because of a Beyonce infringement accusation, then why not filter for everything???

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Filtering you out would be a start

        "Why not filter for everything?"

        Epic fail, dude.

      2. MyHeadIsSpinning
        Thumb Up

        If Mandy wants to help creative industries


        If Mandy wants to help creative industries, then he should have the UK government invest money and time in supporting funds and projects which support artists or those that want to become artists (grants for gifted art students etc).

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    2 eyes for an eye

    Record companies aren't happy to simply recoup their losses with relation to a single persons activities... they seem to want to fine that person a ridiculous sum of money they could never possibly pay. Apparently that's meant to be a deterrent, ironically however it has the opposite effect. No one is worried about losing money they don't have to begin with.

  4. Mectron

    no need to study 400 years of history

    copy protection (DRM)

    1. Illegal in most country

    2. Never ever worked

    3. raise price

    4. punish actual consumers

    and most of all., never since the begening of human history, have we face a danger as big as: The MPAA and RIAA,

    The MPAA/RIAA are the most dangerous criminal cartels on earth, they broke the law on a hourly basis, they corrupt goverments accross the world, they destroyed countless lives. they must be stop at all cost and by any means.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Black Helicopters


      "never...have we face a danger as big as: The MPAA and RIAA"

      Really? Never? You're making it look as though the opponents of the MPAA/RIAA are a bunch of paranoid freetards with no sense of perspective.

  5. Usko Kyykka

    Personally ...

    ... I lost any remaining sympathy whatsoever for the cause of the *IAAs on after an exposure to a suit of the local metastasis thereof on the Finnish national TV. If they insist on the attitude employed so far - perhaps, most evident in the ACTA negotiations at this time - I suppose one has to conclude that P2P filesharing is, in fact, a form of civil disobedience, a moral duty.

  6. Paul Durrant

    Copyright Backlash

    The only surprise about any copyright backlash is that it's taken so long. Thomas Babington Macaulay predicted such an outcome of excessive copyright back in 1841!

    "Remember too that, when once it ceases to be considered as wrong and discreditable to invade literary property, no person can say where the invasion will stop. The public seldom makes nice distinctions. The wholesome copyright which now exists will share in the disgrace and danger of the new copyright which you are about to create. And you will find that, in attempting to impose unreasonable restraints on the reprinting of the works of the dead, you have, to a great extent, annulled those restraints which now prevent men from pillaging and defrauding the living."

  7. gdeinsta


    The reason this matters is because of who Adrian Johns is. He isn't just some historian, he is The Historian of Copyright. No, the MAFIAA won't listen to him but civil servants and Parliamentary committees will.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Fair point...

      ... and the gentleman didn't deserve my sarky comment, so good luck to him.

      Wish I had any confidence about his influence though... Prof Johns v Mandybum and his US equivalents plus their wealthy lobbyists... I suspect the man is outgunned.

  8. David 105
    Thumb Up

    Great Article

    Great Article, a rational insight not just into current squabbles over rights, but the whole history of the arguement (and those who forget history, etc etc)

    On a side note, I noticed today that revenues for online sales are rising quicker than revenues from lost CD/DVD sales are decreasing

    Now, I'm not a maths genius like those people at the record surely this should mean that profits are *increasing*, and "illegal" downloading should just be viewed almost as a promotional tool, an acceptable loss for the greater good of introducing more people into a 21st century business model.

    One would almost suspect the recording industries of reporting the decline in CD sales, correlating with the *alleged* numbers of illegal downloading, but forgetting to mention the increase in online revenues (which are going to come from the more tech savvy people who are more than capable of operating a bittorrent client rather than an iTunes client should the mood take them) in order to further a political agenda with little consideration for either the facts involved, the historical context (as explained in the article) or the consequences for anyone who isn't them.

    Greedy bastards

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    I bet he didn't

    I bet he didn't note anything about the early years in the history of the US of A, where they blatanly ignored copyright on foreign works, freely copying and publishing them, just so their own 'creative' people could advance. The USA owes Europeans billions of pounds or euros due to their early bouts of copyright infringement, yet they have the cheek to force their rights on us now that they are the main providers!

    1. Anonymous Coward

      It's still going on

      "... early years in the history of the US of A ..." Look again, Google are still at it!

    2. Oninoshiko

      silly dates...

      Not the USA, indeviduals in the USA. I think you might find that many of them (no matter how great a muse) are now decomposing. You'd even be hard-pressed to find the successors in intriest. Again, "Europeans" are not entitled to anything, just spacific sucessors-in-intriest.

      Of couse that assumes that the Burene convention was in force in the "early years of the history of the US of A." The treaty was not in force until 1887, and the USA was not a party to it until 1982. I suppose the USA was a part of UCC Paris in 1974, but until then there could not have been a treaty violation because no treaty existed. You wouldn't be perposing an ex post facto law would you?

  10. morphoyle

    Fight it

    Get up and do something about this please! This may be a case that is being decided in the UK, but the outcome will have implications all over the word.

  11. Anonymous Coward

    DRM doesn't work

    A couple of times now I've purchased a DVD that flat-out refuses to perform on my computer. (Apparently the manufacturers would much prefer you only run it with a TV). The answer - run it through software that strips off the copy protection. As a bonus the end result can be stored on my terabyte external drive.

    If it were not for the fact that copy protection makes these DVDs almost unusable, I'd never have had to learn to rip them. So what is DRM for? It really gets up the nose of the average punter, yet if I can get around it any moderately good pirate can too.

    On the other hand, it's teaching an entire generation of otherwise law-abiding citizens how to use pirate torrents and DVD crackers.

    AC obviously

  12. JimC

    @ Perspective

    The really scary thing about that post is not that one person was so mind boggling lacking in perspective to make it, but that 4 others upvoted it...

  13. Anonymous Coward

    Broken business model

    I knew the industry was in trouble when the legitimate Sony branded James Bond DVD I bought from a Zavvvi store refused to play on my Sony DVD player. Since the store was 70 miles away I tried copying the disk on the computer to a blank - which played perfectly. I've also had similar issues importing bought CDs to my iPod.

    With a business model like that no wonder people decide to cut out the middle man and save waste.

    I've just chosen to never again buy any Sony products or retail CD/DVDs.

  14. RW

    It's just fucking entertainment, people!

    Songs and movies. Entertainment, nothing more. And why, therefore, are the governments of the world so hot and bothered to do something about the piracy? Particularly when there are far more pressing issues to be dealt with.

    Oh, wait, I forgot: there's a well known reason why the UK's ZanuLabour government is so antsy on the subject: because their minds are too small to encompass the really serious issues of the day. ZanuLabour knows of no aspect of life too small or too trivial for them to pass laws about. To say nothing of under-the-table influence and, no doubt, good old fashioned bribery in some form or other.

    A more pointed reason is that the sweeping away of the old music & movie business model has resulted in the shakers and movers of the industry having a shortage of funds to pay for nose candy. If you think of the RIAA and its ilk as addicts facing the problem of having no money to pay for their next hit, all becomes clear.

    I used to think this accusation was baseless, but as time has gone on, it's become obvious that it accounts for a great deal of the craziness.

  15. Mike Powers


    "As a point of democratic principle, how can something that most of us do be illegal?"

    I'll be sure to use that argument next time I'm stopped for going 70 mph in a 65 zone. "Officer, you probably intend to cite me for speeding, but I ask you, as a democratic principle, how can something that most of us do be illegal?"

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    How about ...

    ... the past is no indicator of future performance?

    And to compliment the above: make it happen?

    It was only 20 years ago when sound systems were set up so buyers could record any and all media that they possessed or borrowed and I think that tends to be the big systematic shock factor making copyright insistence appear a draconian measure.

  17. Hadrian

    Let them eat cake!

    I have a copyright on fresh air. Now I *could* sell it to you for say 79p per breath, but as so many people are copying my air I demand that you all pay £15.99 per breath to cover my losses. Anyone caught breathing without permission will be fined £1000 per infringing breath.

    Er... did somebody mention a revolution?

  18. mfioretti

    Filesharing for sake of filesharing is bad!

    I am more and more convinced every year that some of the best supporters of proposals like ACTA, that is some of the people we all have to thank for such proposals receiving attention, are the people who download and put back online everything they can find, "just because", even when they never use it personally.

    This is an habit that is just fashion (it doesn't serve any real purpose whatsoever, for nobody) but generates P2P traffic numbers that make it much easier to convince parliaments that things like ACTA are necessary and good. If anybody cares for a longer explanation, it's here in this very short "novel":

  19. argus

    As Sullen

    I found the warning written on some Russian book (by V.Pelevin): "All thoughts that may come to your mind while reading this book are under copyright protection. It is forbidden to use them without the author's permission"

    Life is full of absurdity. I heard Americans cannot freely cite any poet on the web if the text was written after 1923. Reading an author who lived in the XXI century is then an advertisement - isn’t it? Literary work became just somebody’s permanent personal property and a tool to entertain oneself for the rest of us. Could you imagine Bach and Mozart would have been able to regard you as a thief if you didn’t pay for listening to their music?

    This culture now is just the culture of consumerism and greediness. Westerners look like the pimps of their own high culture of the past, because they reduced the meaning of music and literature to sheer entertainment and items for sell. It is like turning your beloved into a prostitute.

    During the Soviet times we were not listening to the communists who wanted us to stay away from learning about contemporary culture in the West. We were copying and recording everything we felt we had the inherent right to learn and taste, and we were shearing it all around (of course, Internet did not exist then) with other young people. Otherwise, you could still see us live on the other side of the iron curtain.

    Later, when I worked as a journalist, we were allowed to translate many Western media sources who did not demand any money from us for that. It was clear that we were too poor, and the information we needed was not just some kind of entertainment. At the same time, recording industry from the West started supplying our region with CD’s of unrealistic prices. You know, it’s like teasing the hungry with the restaurant food. So our youth just went on with the same copying work we had made under the communist regime. And now, I guess, decades will have to pass in order to change our attitude. I have a deep contempt for recording industry, although I respect artists. Moreover, in the country of my citizenship, I have heard artists complain about the national copyright protection agency for rather racketeering artists, instead of protecting their rights as authors.

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