Editor’s Note: This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in Tor­rent Freak on 27 Novem­ber 2011.

It is said that those who don’t study his­tory are doomed to repeat it. In the case of the copy­right indus­try, they have learned that they can get new monop­oly ben­e­fits and rent-seeker’s ben­e­fits every time there is a new tech­nol­ogy, if they just com­plain loudly enough to the legislators.

The past 100 years have seen a vast array of tech­ni­cal advances in broad­cast­ing, mul­ti­pli­ca­tion and trans­mis­sions of cul­ture, but equally much mis­guided leg­is­la­tors who sought to pre­serve the old at expense of the new, just because the old was com­plain­ing. First, let’s take a look at what the copy­right indus­try tried to ban and out­law, or at least receive tax­payer money in com­pen­sa­tion for its existence:

It started around 1905, when the self-playing piano was becom­ing pop­u­lar. Sell­ers of note sheet music pro­claimed that this would be the end of artistry if they couldn’t make a liv­ing off of mid­dle­men between com­posers and the pub­lic, so they called for a ban on the player piano. A famous let­ter in 1906 claims that both the gramo­phone and the self-playing piano will be the end of artistry, and indeed, the end of a vivid, song­ful humanity.

In the 1920s, as broad­cast radio started appear­ing, another copy­right indus­try was demand­ing its ban because it cut into prof­its. Record sales fell from $75 mil­lion in 1929 to $5 mil­lion four years later — a reces­sion many times greater than the record industry’s cur­rent trou­bles. (Speak­ing of reces­sion, the drop in prof­its hap­pened to coin­cide with the Great Depres­sion.) The copy­right indus­try sued radio sta­tions, and col­lect­ing soci­eties started col­lect­ing part of the sta­tion prof­its under a blan­ket “licens­ing” scheme. Laws were pro­posed that would immu­nize the new radio medium from the copy­right indus­try, but they did not pass.

In the 1930s, silent movies were phased out by movies with audio tracks. Every the­ater had pre­vi­ously employed an orches­tra that played music to accom­pany the silent movies, and now, these were out of a job. It is quite con­ceiv­able that this is the sin­gle worst tech­nol­ogy devel­op­ment for pro­fes­sional per­form­ers. Their unions demanded guar­an­teed jobs for these per­form­ers in vary­ing propositions.

In the 1940s, the movie indus­try com­plained that the tele­vi­sion would be the death of movies, as movie indus­try prof­its dropped from $120 mil­lion to $31 mil­lion in five years. Famous quote: “Why pay to go see a movie when you can see it at home for free?”

In 1972, the copy­right indus­try tried to ban the pho­to­copier. This push was from book pub­lish­ers and mag­a­zine pub­lish­ers alike. “The day may not be far off when no one need pur­chase books.”

The 1970s saw the advent of the cas­sette tape, which is when the copy­right indus­try really went all-out in pro­claim­ing their enti­tle­ment. Ads say­ing “Home tap­ing is killing music!” were every­where. The band Dead Kennedys famously responded by sub­tly chang­ing the mes­sage in adding “…indus­try prof­its”, and “We left this side [of their tape] blank, so you can help.”

The 1970s also saw another sig­nif­i­cant shift, where DJs and loud­speak­ers started tak­ing the place of live dance music. Unions and the copy­right indus­try went bal­lis­tic over this, and sug­gested a “disco fee” that would be charged at loca­tions play­ing disco (recorded) music, to be col­lected by pri­vate orga­ni­za­tions under gov­ern­men­tal man­date and redis­trib­uted to live bands. This pro­duces hearty laugh­ter today, but that laugh­ter stops sharp with the real­iza­tion that the disco fee was actu­ally intro­duced, and still exists.

The 1980s is a spe­cial chap­ter with the advent of video cas­sette recorders. The copy­right industry’s famous quote when tes­ti­fy­ing before the US Con­gress – where the film lobby’s high­est rep­re­sen­ta­tive said that “The VCR is to the Amer­i­can film pro­ducer and the Amer­i­can pub­lic as the Boston stran­gler is to the woman home alone” — is the stuff of leg­end today. Still, it bears remind­ing that the Sony vs Beta­max case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and that the VCR was as near as could be from being killed by the copy­right indus­try: The Beta­max team won the case by 5–4 in votes.

Also in the late 1980s, we saw the com­plete flop of the Dig­i­tal Audio Tape (DAT). A lot of this can be ascribed to the fact that the copy­right indus­try had been allowed to put its pol­i­tics into the design: the cas­sette, although tech­ni­cally supe­rior to the ana­log Com­pact Cas­sette, was so delib­er­ately unus­able for copy­ing music that peo­ple rejected it flat out­right. This is an exam­ple of a tech­nol­ogy that the copy­right indus­try suc­ceeded in killing, even though I doubt it was inten­tional: they just got their wishes as to how it should work to not dis­rupt the sta­tus quo.

In 1994, Fraun­hofer Insti­tute pub­lished a pro­to­type imple­men­ta­tion of its dig­i­tal cod­ing tech­nique that would rev­o­lu­tion­ize dig­i­tal audio. It allowed CD-quality audio to take one-tenth of the disk space, which was very valu­able in this time, when a typ­i­cal hard drive would be just a cou­ple of giga­bytes. Tech­ni­cally known as MPEG-1 Audio Layer III, it was quickly short­ened to “MP3” in every­day speak. The copy­right indus­try screamed again, call­ing it a tech­nol­ogy that only can be used for crim­i­nal activ­ity. The first suc­cess­ful MP3 player, the Dia­mond Rio, saw the light in 1998. It had 32 megabytes of mem­ory. Despite good sales, the copy­right indus­try sued its maker, Dia­mond Mul­ti­me­dia, into obliv­ion: while the law­suit was struck down, the com­pany did not recover from the bur­den of defend­ing. The monop­oly mid­dle­men tried aggres­sively to have MP3 play­ers banned.

The cen­tury ended with the copy­right mid­dle­men push­ing through a new law in the United States called the Dig­i­tal Mil­len­nium Copy­right Act, which would have killed the Inter­net and social media by intro­duc­ing inter­me­di­ary lia­bil­ity — essen­tially killing social tech­nolo­gies in their cra­dle. Only with much effort did the tech­nol­ogy indus­try man­age to stave off dis­as­ter by intro­duc­ing so-called “safe har­bors” that immu­nizes the tech­ni­cal com­pa­nies from lia­bil­ity on the con­di­tion that they throw the end-users to the wolves on request. The inter­net and social media sur­vived the copy­right industry’s onslaught by a very nar­row escape that still left it sig­nif­i­cantly harmed and slowed.

Right after the turn of the cen­tury, the use of Dig­i­tal Video Recorders was called “steal­ing” as it allowed for skip­ping of com­mer­cials (as if nobody did that before).

In 2003, the copy­right indus­try tried to have its say in the design of HDTV with a so-called “broad­cast flag” that would make it ille­gal to man­u­fac­ture devices that could copy movies so flagged. In the USA, the FCC mirac­u­lously granted this request, but was struck down in bolts of light­ning by courts who said they had way over­stepped their mandate.

What we have here is a cen­tury of deceit, and a cen­tury reveal­ing the inter­nal cul­ture inher­ent in the copy­right indus­try. Every time some­thing new appears, the copy­right indus­try has learned to cry like a lit­tle baby that needs more food, and suc­ceeds prac­ti­cally every time to get leg­is­la­tors to chan­nel tax­payer money their way or restrict com­pet­ing indus­tries. And every time the copy­right indus­try suc­ceeds in doing so, this behav­ior is fur­ther reinforced.

It is far past due that the copy­right indus­try is stripped of its nobil­ity ben­e­fits, every part of its gov­ern­men­tal weekly allowance, and gets kicked out of its comfy chair to get a damn job and learn to com­pete on a free and hon­est market.

Rick Falkvinge is a reg­u­lar colum­nist on Tor­rent­F­reak and can be found at falkvinge.net. This arti­cle is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

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