This digital utopianism is glorified piracy

The chattering classes’ passion for free file-sharing and disdain for creators’ rights is a betrayal of art and its practitioners.

Andrew Orlowski

Topics Politics

‘They think they’ve finally worked the trick of extracting large amounts of cash from users of digital music without them noticing’, wrote the BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Celland Jones recently, discussing the launch of two new music services. ‘If they’re right, then Omnifone and Sony Ericsson will be the toast of the music and mobile industries.’ (1)

The Beeb blogger’s easy cynicism perfectly expressed several aspects of discussions about music and copyright today: it’s probably a conspiracy, and it’s most certainly a swindle. Meanwhile the citizen, apparently incapable of making rational choices of their own, will be helplessly ensnared in this nefarious plot, engineered by shadowy corporate giants.

In polite company, sympathy for copyright is in short supply, while for politicians, the ‘creative economy’ is little more than a platitude. Such attitudes are most deeply held amongst people who consider themselves liberal, forward thinking or progressive.

Which is deeply odd, because for 150 years liberals and progressives have embraced the artistic creator as both an ally and a pathfinder. From William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement, to the many schemes devised by postwar social democratic governments, the creator was an aesthetic rebel, a political ally and a visionary, an ethos that owed much to Shelley’s view of the poet as the ‘unacknowledged legislator’. What many of these initiatives had in common was a creator’s economic independence, typically supported through the mechanism of copyright.

The progressive’s support of creator’s rights expressed an optimistic view of society and human nature. But ever since digital utopianism swept through the chattering classes in the early 1990s, this positive view has been replaced by one of misanthropy and paranoia.

At a conference hosted by the utopian Oxford Internet Institute at the London School of Economics earlier this year, I watched an audience sneer and heckle two representatives of the music business. A succession of academics and ‘digital rights’ activists presented the case for weakening or even abolishing copyright (2). It’s common for such activists to express a sense of being beleaguered by ‘big media’, or ‘copyright maximalists’ and their representatives; on activist blogs, for example, one Hollywood lobby group is referred to as the MAFFIA. To sustain such a persecution fantasy takes quite a leap of imagination: while we happily download gigabytes of free movies, TV shows and CD box sets from the internet, it’s possible to imagine that we may never need to pay for a work of art again; the risk of being caught, to all intents, is zero.

The persecution fantasy is also at odds with the numbers. The economic reality is that the music and movie industries are dwarfed by the technology and telecommunications giants. Five years ago, Apple’s annual revenues were a quarter of the revenues generated from sales of sound recordings globally each year. Today, Apple alone is twice the size of the entire record business. Text messaging brings home more revenue for phone companies than Hollywood generates through sales of movie tickets, DVDs and action figures. And this power is reflected in their respective lobbying muscle.

Nevertheless, progressives now see the right to be remunerated from cultural production in the digital age as at best an embarrassment, and at worst an anachronism. The cure that technology utopians now propose for creative businesses is indistinguishable from suicide. For example, in Freeconomics, Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson makes a plea for businesses to cross-subsidise investment in intellectual property, and then give the results away for nothing (3).

Yet the misanthropy runs even deeper with many digital rights activists. Not content with challenging the economic incentives to creativity, they question the validity of the notion of creativity itself.

‘Substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them’, wrote Jonathan Latham in an essay widely cited by digital rights activists (4).

Latham’s view owes much to Structuralism, the lit-crit fad that usefully blew away the romantic notion of the author as the sole font of creative expression – but replaced it with one of the author as a dumb conduit, lacking autonomy or even the most basic self-awareness.

‘Since my creative work is non-unique’, wrote one commenter, encapsulating the digital rights philosophy, ‘I can’t expect compensation for it; because anyone could have done that. I just happened to get the idea first.’ (5)

From such a position of absolutism, it must be hard to see that one idea added to an existing body of work can nevertheless create something interesting and new.

Today’s digital misanthropy owes much to cybernetic theory, which was borne out of the planning and design of weapons systems during the Second World War. The American physicist John Stroud, who had served in the RAF, referred to the role of an anti-aircraft gunner so: ‘Surrounded on both sides by very precisely known mechanisms and the question comes up, “What kind of machine have we put in the middle?”’ (6)

To which the modern liberal may well answer: a machine not worthy of remuneration or respect. An analog of Stroud’s system is the Creative Commons licence initiative, which has become a badge of political correctness amongst digital rights activists. It seeks to decrease friction in the machinery of the internet by reducing an author’s rights to a subset of irrevocable choices, which can then be machine processed (7). Composers adopting the licence find themselves outside the artists’ traditional vehicle for collective bargaining, the performing rights societies. The message is clear: the creator must lose for the system to benefit. Reduced to such a brutal equation, digital rights, it seems, come at the expense of human rights.

None of the rhetoric here excuses the many missteps made by executives at the apex of the music business. The insistence on recreating the scarcity and excludability of physical goods using digital rights management (DRM) technology was an ill-judged and antagonistic experiment; the decade-long refusal to move to a model of licensing rather than shifting physical units was short-sighted; the simultaneous pursuit of litigation against downloaders simply fuelled the activists’ persecution fantasies.

Yet even the simplified view of a monolithic ‘music business’ is misleading. It’s easy to overlook the fact that publishers and independent music producers struck deals with the original Napster (8) – and the British music business devised and supports new (as yet unlaunched) services which effectively legalise P2P file-sharing (9). But once the digital rights activist has overlooked such contradictions, it becomes easier to demonise the adversary. And didn’t you know, there’s a revolution going on?

With a settlement that blesses what today is unlicensed file-sharing, the era of antagonism against creators may be drawing to close. The new music services encourage the free flow of music for a small fee to the broadband provider, a result that should delight music lovers as well as creators.

But the years of heated rhetoric will leave something of a puzzle for historians. How were so many well-intentioned liberals and progressives able to abandon a long tradition of advocacy for the rights and representation of labour? When the digital revolution arrived, the activist gave up real challenges to power, and found a convenient proxy in the shape of the music business. Marx’s advocacy of ‘expropriating the expropriator’ was adopted, only to be inverted, leaving the creator’s cause as collateral damage.

Andrew Orlowski is executive editor of The Register This evening, Thursday 9 October, he is speaking on digital rights at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, alongside Matt Mason, author of The Pirate’s Dilemma. For more information and to book a ticket, click here.

Previously on spiked

Martyn Perks said ‘hands off our internet connections’. Rob Killick looked at the online threats to privacy and dismissed predictions of the internet’s collapse as digital Malthusianism. Tessa Mayes pleaded don’t steal this article, but please do discuss it. Sandy Starr interviewed a world expert on internet law. Norman Lewis and Neil Barrett debated privacy online. Or read more at spiked issue Privacy.

(1) Mobile Music – how unlimited, how free?, Rory Clelland Jones, BBC News Online, 24 Sep 08

(2) The LSE’s Freetard Fiasco, The Register, 21 March 2008

(3) Freeconomics, The Economist

(4) The Ecstacy of Influence: A Plagiarism, Jonathan Lethem, Harper’s, February 2007

(5) Comment by Mike Powers, The Register, 31 January 2008

(6) Stroud cited in How We Became Posthuman, N Katherine Hayles, Chicago University Press 1999.

(7) Let’s Be Clear About Creative Commons, Sound Nation

(8) U.K. & European Independent Record Industry Strikes Historic Deal With Napster, Association of Independent Music press release, June 2001

(9) see Music Service Provider Ltd

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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