The UK Green Party Finds its Inner Silicon Valley Billionaire On Copyright

Legendary guitarist, DJ and musical innovator Steve Hillage recently provoked an extended debate on Facebook by posting a document demonstrating the UK Green Party’s new anti creator copyright stance.  Among other things they propose a 14 year copyright (a length last seen in 1710) , legalized p2p piracy and expanded fair use “outside of the academic environment.” The last is actually the most troubling. To be clear they are  saying they want academic  “fair use” defenses to extend to commercial endeavors i.e. corporations.  Cause as you know here in the US corporations are people.

Now if I were simply a GDP obsessed American, I might applaud the fact the UK Green Party is willing to give away the rights of their musicians, songwriters, authors, filmmakers, photographers and playwrights to American mega-corporations like Google. For this adds the work of British authors directly to the US GDP.   Companies can now comfortably profit from the distribution and “fair use” reproduction of these works without fear of paying any civil infringement penalties or pesky royalties (See ad supported piracy for how this works).  But if you look at this proposal through the lens of partisan left/right politics the Green Party proposals are essentially a transfer of wealth from all those clever British musicians, songwriters, filmmakers, authors and playwrights to the far right libertarian billionaires of Silicon Valley.  The “useful idiots” in the UK Green Party are handing your wealth to people who would like nothing better than to destroy the environmental regulations the UK Green Party champions.

Funny and brilliant.  I can’t help but begin chanting like a (British) football supporter

Silicon Valley USA! Silicon Valley USA!

Let me be honest with you.  I don’t have a dog in the fight on this one.  I’m not left or even left of center.  I don’t care if the Green Party lives or dies. I’ve described myself over and over again as a raging moderate.  If there was still an “Eisenhower Republican” wing of the Republican party I’d probably join it.  I didn’t like the Green Party economic policies even before they decided to dismantle copyright.  I’m simply here to point out that their policies are stupid even from a center left perspective.

Some of the commenters on Hillage’s Facebook post suggested that the UK Green Party is an organization that would like to return us to an 18th century agrarian economy.  That’s probably an unfair characterization.  But on copyright the 18th century characterization is too generous.  The UK Green party would like to go back to the 17th century.   The copyright term the UKGP  proposes is shorter than the original copyright term created by the 1710 Statute of Ann  (21 years or two 14 year terms).   Further creating “fair use” defenses for commercial endeavors would decimate what revenue there is left for recording artists, songwriters, photographers etc.  If you were not aware Google already argues that its YouTube’s “users” enjoy fair use protections and this rationale allows them to profit handsomely through data mining and advertising on all those unlicensed “user” uploads. Officially extending fair use to all commercial endeavors (not just the cyberbully YouTube) would open the floodgates.   As long as YouTube has free versions of all our songs on it’s service don’t expect revenues from Spotify or other streaming services to ever rise to sustainable levels.  To quote your outspoken countryman Billy Bragg “if we’re pissed off at Spotify, we should be marching to YouTube Central with flaming pitchforks!”

In their defense the UKGP seems to have been fooled by some pseudo-scientific nonsense in a paper by Dr. Rufus Pollack that claims the optimal length of copyright is 14 years. (Pollack may have also influenced UKGP on the decision to allow fair use “outside of academia”).  Pollack is a founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation which is funded by some of those same Silicon Valley billionaires. Surprise!   The disclosure of Pierre Omidyar’s foundation (eBay) as a funder of Open Knowledge should send shivers up the spine of any good British lefty.  The Hewlett foundation is the other main funder. William Hewlett along with his partner David Packard were the key architects and beneficiaries of the Cold War “military-industrial complex.” The same one that Eisenhower famously warned us against.  And you realize of course what we call Silicon Valley is simply the latest incarnation of that same military-industrial complex, this time based upon spying and data mining.

But let me go back to my “pseudo-scientific” comment of a moment ago. This (non peer reviewed?) “paper” has been going round and round the web like a cold sore in an 80’s hair metal band. It seriously needs to be debunked. I think I’ll devote a few days to Zovirax™-ing this sucker in an academic setting later this summer, but for now let’s briefly examine why I call it  “pseudo-sceintific.”  It’s scientific only in the sense that it uses a series of equations to arrive at a number that is 14 years.   The claim that it represents the optimal length of copyright is the “pseudo” part.   The claim rests on a staggering number of assumptions most of which are bad assumptions.  I’ll address just one for now:  The claim that technology has made it less expensive to produce the “original copy” of a work than it did in the past.

How is that a good assumption?  It’s certainly sexy.  It’s what we want to believe.  We love our technology and our devices. We’d like to believe this is true.  But is it true?

Ask yourself this: Exactly how does technology make it any less expensive to write a novel?   Writing a novel is purely a work of intellectual labor.  I suppose it’s easier to spell check…,  the backspace key is more convenient than White-out™ and a brush…  But I’m not seeing any evidence it’s less expensive.   In fact I would argue that since the modern English author lives in a much richer society than Dickens, that the relative cost of his labor is much much higher.   I would argue it is more expensive to make that “first copy” now than it did when Dickens wrote David Copperfield (in Broadstairs Kent not far from my mother’s childhood home).  If this inconvenient fact is popped into Dr Pollack’s equations what happens to his  optimal 14 year copyright?  His whole premise collapses.   And this is just one of the many questionable assumptions that Pollack makes.

To be fair (?!) I should point out  Pollack arrives at this questionable assumption concerning the falling costs of an “original copy” by constructing a unique definition of the costs of an “original copy.”  He includes the costs of licensed reproduction of the work as part of the costs of the “original copy.”  Economists would term this as summing together fixed costs and marginal costs, thus standing the whole concept of “original copy” on it’s head. And it is ONLY through this sleight of hand that he gets his mathematics to (sort of) work.

In short one could reasonably argue the whole paper is an elaborate word puzzle or parlor trick.

But Pollack isn’t the point.  The misguided and unfair treatment of artists by the UK Green Party is the point.

What I find most amusing is that the Green Party for all practical purposes wants to abolish an individual’s copyright in order to  “expand the area of cultural activity, that is ways that culture can be consumed, produced, and shared, reduce the role of the market and encourage smaller and more local cultural enterprise.”

First of all: compared to 20 years ago we are drowning in movies, books, films, songs and cat videos.  While it may not necessarily be less expensive to produce that “first copy” of a novel, Pollack is correct in that there are virtually no barriers to the global distribution of that novel now. As a result – even under current copyright law- there is no “production of cultural goods” emergency!  This is simply a Green Party solution without a problem.

If the Green Party wants to fix a real problem they should examine why the middle class of the creative industries is disappearing.  Just look at what has happened to professional musicians in the US.    Normally the Green Party would reflexively side with these generally unionized professional cultural workers. Why not now?  What gives?  Why does their cultural fix include a fair use exemption for corporations like Google/YouTube? It seems odd.

Clearly the Green Party knows that their policies will eliminate a broad  professional class of artists.  Otherwise they wouldn’t propose the following:

a Citizen’s Income (see EC730), which will allow many more people to participate in cultural creation;”

This is puzzling.  Take away revenue from creators and then give it back through a government stipend? The only way this makes sense is they just don’t like kind of cultural goods that are currently being produced and want to gain control over the process.  Is that what this is really about? Defunding the pop stars and vast middle class of musicians  in hopes that some anti-capitalist pro-environmental indie rock and electronic dance music fills the void? And aren’t British youth  already producing anti-capitalist music?  Isn’t that a rite of passage of every British university student? The anti-capitalist phase?  I don’t know about you  but these new policies sound more like some sort of censorship scheme to me.  Think about it.   Who decides who gets this “Citizen’s Income” to work on pop music?  Your local Green Party council?  And if that’s the case would Compton California’s Green Party Council have funded “Straight out of Compton?  Would the Prestwich Green Party Council have funded The Fall? Doubtful.

Further if you still have a global mixed capitalist system wouldn’t giant multinational companies like Google and Amazon out-market the UK Green Party’s dole produced culture with their monopoly capitalist funded culture?  Surely the jackbooted dance floor stomp “All Hail Bezos and Schmidt” will have a much larger promotion budget than the folksy strains of  “I love composting” by the Aberystwyth Green Council’s Twee Three.

But let’s just say there is an emergency.  For the sake of argument let us accept the questionable Green Party premise that there is a shit ton more creativity to be unleashed and copyright is somehow standing in the way.

How the hell is my individual right to be compensated for the use of my work standing in the way of this?  How am I preventing some young musicians in Hull from starting their own band or indie label based upon the East Riding sound?   Is the problem that they want to cover one of my songs in a retro KLF style and I have a copyright on that composition?  They already have the right to cover that composition.  I can’t stop them. Why?  Copyright law in the US gives them a compulsory license (you have a similar process in the UK).   They just have to pay to me the very small songwriter royalty.  Is the problem they don’t want to pay the royalty?  Then they should make up their own songs.  They can even base their songs on the ideas from my original composition, for copyright only protects my unique expression not the ideas themselves.

And ladies and gentlemen, this is a perfect example of how copyright incentivizes the creation of new works, not prevents their creation as the Green Party seems to think.

Maybe the UK Green Party should stick to saving whales.

3 thoughts on “The UK Green Party Finds its Inner Silicon Valley Billionaire On Copyright

  1. I photograph insects, they are used by wildlife trusts, wildlife groups, bloggers, universities, medical books, natural history museums, and wildlife guides. According to the Green Party they should also be made available to Monsanto, Fissons, and rentokill to put on their cans of pesticides and poisons.

    • One reason that I had supported Green Parties in the past (aside from their environmental views) is that they stood up for labor rights. Musicians, authors, photographers, and other content creators are laborers. Taking away copyright takes away a creators right to earn money from their own labor. It also makes no sense that libertarians are anti copyright. Libertarians – like others on the far right economically, believe in virtually no limitations to property rights. Unlike liberals, they do not believe in some taxation for the common good or regulations. So somehow libertarians believe that there should be 0 limits to property rights, unless you are a creator and in that case you have 0 rights to what you create? Huh?? The fact is an anti copyright stance does not fit in with any place on the political spectrum.

  2. It’s atrocious that struggling artists get ground up in the “Intellectual Property” wars. There is a genuine philosophical principle behind the Green Party stance, that “all ideas are free” and “sharing of information trumps everything else”. The masses unthinkingly love it and some learn to parrot the words because it means never paying for any book, music, or movie ever again, unless you feel like tossing a few coins in the virtual tip jar. I believe the principle applies to software, because you are harmed if you can’t update your 3-year old phone. But zero harm comes to society if people can’t freely share a particular copyrighted movie or song. As you say the ideas motivating artistic works are free to the world. Furthermore, there are millions of hours of freely-licensed zero-cost music and video at e.g. https://archive.org/ and https://commons.wikimedia.org whose creators WANT you to reuse and share it. But Joe Public ignores them, he wants to watch the new Hollywood movie or hit single, without paying.

    “You gotta fight (duhn-dunh) for your individual right (duhn-dunh) to be compensated for the use of your worr—rrr-k!” Catchy lyric.

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