Tin foil

Let’s posit a view of the world where there is indeed an active and driven power elite that colludes and competes within itself, and makes decisions that define societies and influences or controls populations en masse. It’s not so far-fetched, actually, because quite frankly there is little in that description that does not apply to the communist party that currently runs China.

So, in this posit imagine that there is a power elite that looks to control the western world, with much the same spheres of influence as the Chinese communists have today. With slow time frames for reference, years not months, decades not years, imagine that this pre-internet western society was controlled by several power elites, that competed and colluded, through movement of capital, political influence, resource ownership and militarised populations.

In this posit, control is not something that only exists under authoritarian regimes, but nonetheless in this western society it is somewhat subtle, certainly not overt. Large swathes of the population would not just be unaware but would deny the truth even if confronted by evidence. So, please consider this posited western society as it discovers and embraces and develops the internet. It’s much harder to imagine the same level of control being exercised, when citizens can use the internet to commune and educate in new more powerful ways, undiminished by proximity, empowered by unrivalled access.

In China, TODAY, when faced with this exact challenge they have simply censored the internet. There is information that is not available on any of the key portals / platforms / sites / search engines. It’s not a perfect filter of course, but it is pretty good. The masses by and large do not see things the government doesn’t want them to see.

They are partly able to do this, that is to manage the propaganda transition to the internet, because their population has never been under a deep illusion as to the nature of their leadership, there is a deficit of expectation for the rights that we, in the west, take for granted. Moreover, partly, they can do this (that is they have been able to maintain a society, even though basic freedoms are missing) because they had even more effective control of the pre-internet media, than the western world ever had. This aggregation of power is not challenged by emerging capitalist and/or technology industries, because in China, today, the new startups and the established players that want to win big, have learnt that playing along with the government is a more effective route than challenging it. If you like it has become a business decision. The alternative is digital oblivion.

As a contrast, in the USA today there are conflicts between industries, where the government can be seen more as a weather vane, an enabler, a vessel of effect, the tool that must be controlled, rather than the controlling authority. These relationships have blurred though, as the lines between government and business have moved, with the lobby system legitimising corporate access to law making.

Right now, for example, there is a conflict between the Hollywood / entertainment industry and the tech industry represented by Silicon Valley over the copyright and IP protection legislation currently passing through the American legislature, SOPA and PIPA.

It seems that the role of government, in this case, is to choose between the two lobbies. A choice that has been made, on a bipartisan basis it should be noted, already and in favour of the entertainment industry.

Clay Shirky told us that “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”. Applying the logic of that assertion to the problem faced by the recording, movie and publishing industries, we can start to see their support of SOPA as a last stand to preserve value from the problems to  which they have been the solution. Broadly these problems are talent, production, distribution and promotion.

With regard to the music industry specifically, modern computing has decentralised production, so it is no longer necessary to have access to million pound studio facilities to produce commercial grade recordings.

The internet totally solves the problem that is currently serviced by legions of trucking networks, warehouses and retailers, which is distribution.

Because production and distribution can be done by almost anyone with the skills (which are actually quite widespread) and for ever more attractive costs, talent no longer needs to be as reliant on the industry infrastructure as it has been. Nonetheless there is still a decent amount of affiliation between established talent and the music industry. Lots of infrastructure is still being used, it’s just becoming harder to maintain margin.

Promotion, of course, is similarly challenged by the enhanced communications offered by the internet, particularly in the realms of one to many communication platforms such as those proliferating under the banner of social networking. Potentially one of the big casualties of SOPA.

In short it’s all going to hell in a hand-basket and quite frankly I can’t see how the existing players can win. It becomes a transition of power via the transition of essential infrastructure. It used to be retailers and publishers and warehouses and haulage. It will become SEARCH and SOCIAL NETWORKING and SOCIAL DISTRIBUTION and legions of individually owned transactional portals and/or aggregated portal facilities. Getting product to large audiences will still need industrial levels of investment, infrastructure and influence. It is a transition of capital. Power to the people will be how it feels, at least for a while, but eventually these new leaders will be challenged and the cycle will begin again.

IP protection, copyright enforcement, piracy and the subsequent monetisation models (or rather, lack of monetisation models) are the battleground because copyright is the legal heart of the old monetisation model, and it enables the owners of said copyrights to keep making money from old copyable assets today, and new assets long into the future.

Computers and the internet have made it very easy to copy and distribute these assets. The pillars of the business (Talent, production, distribution and promotion) are all decentralising at different rates and nothing has been done to recognise the one essential incorrigible fact of the modern problem with IP law – with an almost zero cost of duplication you will not be able to stop it happening. Nothing has been done about that problem, because the solutions to that problem are solved by very different bits of infrastructure. Or, more accurately, there is no solution to that problem, but there are solutions to the monetisation model problem. That is the problem solved by different infrastructure.

There really is a lot at stake, not just the money, but the role of gatekeeper is up for grabs.

Confused in Calcutta presents a nicely optimistic view of what’s going to happen next, juxtaposing the quite ludicrous nature of the legislation with a faith that humanity simply won’t be that stupid. I tend to think he is right with regards to SOPA and PIPA and the various lookalikes popping up all around the world (often at the behest of the US government no less).

However, a talk Cory Doctorow gave last December gives me pause for thought. Doctorow’s position is that the current scrap over copyright is just one round in a bigger fight against the threat to today’s businesses, generated by general purpose computing.

Your laptop and desktop are general purpose computers. You can use them to do anything, providing you have the correct code to run. This is part of their DNA, modern computing is somewhat reliant on this set-up. From the link.

“We don’t know how to build a general-purpose computer that is capable of running any program except for some program that we don’t like, is prohibited by law, or which loses us money. The closest approximation that we have to this is a computer with spyware: a computer on which remote parties set policies without the computer user’s knowledge, or over the objection of the computer’s owner. Digital rights management always converges on malware.”

His hypothesis suggests, quite plausibly, that as computing becomes ever more endemic, more and more industries will become threatened. If you consider that 3D printing will take computing into the production process as well as the information process you can start to see the scope of the challenge. Doctorow goes into more detail, of course, but he makes a simple point, the powers that be will have ever more reasons to want to control our access to general purpose computing and copyright is one of the battles in that war.

If you look at the various business interests that have declared financial support for the SOPA bill though the lobbying process you see some interesting things. There are a large number of businesses that are not in the entertainment sector, or seem overly reliant on copyright for their revenues that are backing SOPA.

Tobacco & Tobacco products, Animal feed & health products, Optical services (glasses & contact lenses), Pharmaceutical manufacturing, Health care products, Personal health care products, Truck/Automotive parts & accessories, Auto repair and the IBEW (Intl Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) amongst others.

Opencongress.org provides the data. It’s quite eye opening, both the who and the how much, particularly when you look at the very short list of interests that are opposed to SOPA.

Communications & Electronics, Computer manufacture & services, Data processing & computer services, Venture capital, Democratic/Liberal, Human Rights, Non-Profits, Non-profit foundations and Education.

And that’s it.

Why is there such wide ranging, bipartisan support for such a poorly structured bill? I can think of 3 possible explanations, but all are speculation.

  1. Doctorow is right and this is one skirmish in a wider battle affecting many more industries than simply the entertainment sector
  2. These businesses have a lot invested in the current infrastructure, both the know how (promotional, executional, financial) and the equipment itself and wish to maintain the status quo
  3. There is a view that the industrial influence of the media on a global scale has been able to generate value for ‘America’ simply through the widespread distribution of innocuous ‘American’ content. To be clear. I am not alleging a conspiracy to push brand America through entertainment content, merely a recognition that America’s leadership in this area has benefited more businesses than just those that make said content.

SOPA really is bad legislation but not because of its goals. On the face of it protecting existing rights granted under licence of law is not actually a choice but an obligation. It’s what we have government for. To create and police the rule of law. So its about the how,not the what. SOPA fails for 2 big reasons.

  1. It won’t defeat piracy
  2. It will break the internet

What is required is that we move to the new infrastructures and business models as soon as possible.

This is difficult because it does need business to become less reliant on copyright as a commercial protection. If you can make good money as a live musician, and the best can make a lot of money, then low cost of copy and distribution actually start to work in your favour as advertising for your revenue lines (let alone social pass on with accompanying recommendation),which is live performance. It is a big change, though something like this is needed.

If we can generate a new monetisation model, that enables effective commercial reward to effort / talent ratios, then we can start to de-construct the problems we face when trying to understand why support for SOPA is so strong.

  1. If Doctorow is right: it’s going to be bloody whichever way you cut it. This is a transition of power and no two ways about it. Effective monetisation will hasten the move to more stable times by hastening the success of new infrastructure industries
  2. Lazy businesses? They will re-invest if they can see an effective model. Those that don’t will die. This should satisfy those that believe in free markets.
  3. American hegemony. This is changing. America will never have as much influence in the world as it has now. This is a mirage. Once you show money how to make money it will switch its allegiance. In a heartbeat.

Ho hum.


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