Last week we announced our new site EveryoneCreates.org, featuring stories from many different creators of music, books, movies and more about how important the internet and fair use have been to their creations. As we noted, the reason for the site is that the legacy copyright gatekeepers at the MPAA and the RIAA have been using the Trump-requested NAFTA renegotiations to try to undermine both fair use and internet safe harbors by positing a totally false narrative that the internet has somehow "harmed" content creators.
Yet, as we know, and as the stories from various artists show, nothing is further from the truth. For most artists and content creators, the internet has been a huge boon. It has helped them create new art, share it and distribute it to other people, build a fan base and connect with them, and make money selling either their work or related products and services. As we've discussed before, in the past, for most artists, if you did not find a giant gatekeeper to take you on, you were completely out of the market. There was very little "long tail" to be found in most creative industries, because you either were "chosen" by a gatekeeper or you went home and did something else. But the internet has changed that. It has allowed people to go directly to their audiences, or to partner with platforms that help anyone create, distribute, promote and monetize. Indeed, the internet has undoubtedly helped everyone reading this to create art -- whether for profit or just for fun. And if that's the case with you, please share your story.
But it is worth taking a step back and asking an even larger question: how the hell did we get here? How did we get to the point that the MPAA and the RIAA are using NAFTA negotiations to try to undermine the internet. Rest assured: there's a long, long history at play here, and it's important to learn about it. The idea that you can or should regulate the internet or intellectual property in trade agreements should seem strange to most people -- especially as most trade agreements these days are about increasing free trade by removing barriers to trade, and copyright by its very nature is mercantile-style trade protectionism that places artificial limits and costs on trade that might otherwise be cheaper.
An excellent history on this topic comes from the aptly named 2002 book Information Feudalism: Who Owns the Knowledge Economy by Peter Drahos and John Braithweaite. It tells the story of how a concerted effort by legacy copyright maximalist organizations laid the groundwork for making sure that copyrights and patents were always included in trade agreements, by getting them in as a key part of the World Trade Organization and by the creation of TRIPS -- Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. The book details how the legacy industries turned "intellectual property" from a question of benefiting the public to a solely commercial arena of corporate ownership and trade.
Once that was in place, these same industries wasted little time in exploiting the reframing of issues around copyright and patents. Famously, the DMCA itself was created in this manner. The record labels and movie studios had a friend in the Clinton White House in Bruce Lehman, who wrote a white paper in 1995 requesting draconian changes to copyright law targeting the internet. However, he found little support for it in Congress. Five years ago, Lehman himself admitted that when Congress refused to act he did "an end-run around Congress" by going to Geneva and pushing for a trade agreement via the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) which required DMCA-like copyright rules.
With that treaty in hand, Lehman and his Hollywood friends came back to Congress, insisting that our "international obligations" now required Congress to create and pass the DMCA, or we'd suddenly face all sorts of trade and diplomatic problems for failing to live up to those "international obligations" that they themselves had put into the trade agreement. Indeed, ever since then, nearly every international trade agreement has included some crazy provisions related to copyright and patents and other IP rights -- all designed to effectively launder these laws through the highly opaque international trade negotiation process, and then insist that legislatures in various countries simply must ratchet up their laws to meet those obligations.
Given all that, there's at least some irony in the fact that these same groups that forced the DMCA on Congress through an international trade agreement back in the mid-1990s are now trying to use a different trade agreement 20 years later to force changes to that very same law (and others). Once again, the process is opaque. And once again, the industry is well connected and represented on a variety of the "Industry Trade Advisory Committees" (ITACs), giving them much greater access to the details of the negotiations while the public is kept in the dark.
But the history here is clear. Moving copyright into trade agreements was a purposeful move, pushed for by legacy industries so they could promote their favored protectionist laws around the globe, in part by moving them away from being designed for the public's benefit and towards a world in which information and knowledge was considered to be privatized, owned, and locked up by default. It ignored the fact that, often, the public can benefit the most when information is open and widely shared. And, decades later, we're still dealing with the fallout from these bad decisions.
And that's why it's so important for policy makers to understand that it's complete hogwash to argue that the RIAA and MPAA are "representing artists" in trying to undermine the internet this way. Most artists recognize that the internet and various platforms are a key part of their ability to create, distribute, share, and support their artwork these days -- and they are not being represented at the NAFTA negotiating table.
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