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.