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Come celebrate World Hypocrisy Day

Silicon Valley has a problem with IP. And it won't grow up

By Andrew Orlowski, 26 Apr 2017

Comment Thanks to the World Intellectual Property Organization, today is World Intellectual Property Day 2017. Perhaps this celebration needs a dark companion – World Hypocrisy Day. Here's why.

In the 17 years World IP Day has been running, there's been a radical shift in corporate power. This has taken place most dramatically in the past decade as illustrated by this chart accompanying a powerful piece in The New York Times:

The list no longer includes people who make or extract stuff, which is how fortunes were once made. Two of the five companies, Google and Facebook, have accrued enormous wealth in part from an ineffective and dysfunctional IP regime. They invest almost nothing in new original work, but are enjoying a wealth bubble comparable to the robber baron era.

Silicon Valley hates IP, unless it's its own. Then it cares very much indeed. For example, although Google Ventures is the biggest investor in Uber, it sued Uber over the theft of its self-driving car IP. The fascinating and curious thing is that Silicon Valley has persuaded one or two people that weakening people's rights is in their own interest, not just Google's. Silicon Valley will feed this constituency today as it usually does: with its astroturf groups griping that the IP regime is somehow "oppressive" and unfair to the individual. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is quite clear:

Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

We must campaign harder, goes the message, to weaken those rights.

Who in history has campaigned to make themselves worse off and giant, monopolistic corporations richer? Let's explain how odd this is – how future historians will regard this act of social self-harm as perhaps the distinguishing characteristic of our age.

Out in the real world, copyright is one of the most popular and successful ideas that humanity has ever had. As a virtual property, only "money" has been more successful than IPRs. This child of the Enlightenment made the individual sovereign, and allowed talented people to participate in a market place, so the most talented did not need not to tug their forelocks at wealthy sponsors like the Medicis.

Copyright is popular and respected. A recent EU Observatory study found that more than 90 per cent thought creators should be rewarded. And it's an idea that's respected in the concrete, in its practice, not just as some intellectual abstraction. Don't take my word for it. Walk into any pub tonight, and pose a question: "Should you have more control or less control over the words and pictures you post to Facebook and Instagram? Who thinks less control is a good idea?"

Count how many hands go up.

Or another experiment. Invite a classroom of children to draw a picture. Then take the pictures, and explain that you will control their distribution, and pocket all the profits that result from any sales. You will have a small riot on your hands, because children care about this virtual property right. Most adults do too.

More than once I've had the experience of taking a tech guru and opponent of copyright to the pub (or non-alcohol equivalent) and invited them to brainstorm a replacement of copyright. Several hours later they've come up with an exclusive, property-ish authors right.

"You've reinvented copyright," I'd say.

"No, I haven't... Oh."

Faced with such powerful support for virtual property rights, Silicon Valley has created a pretend world, a simulation. Adam Curtis makes films about our retreat from reality into a simplified world, and Silicon Valley's long war on creators' rights requires a simulation of great ambition.

In the simplified world of the copyfighter, the individual is oppressed by being able to negotiate their rights in a fair marketplace, and must be freed from this tyranny. Best not to care about that virtual property at all. Give up what's yours, and help yourself to everyone else’s. "Sharing is caring", as The Circle instructs its users.

So "copyfighting" has become a way of being a political activist or community activist, without actually doing the messy stuff of politics, like coalition building, or attempting rational persuasion on people Who Are Not Like You.

In the real world, doing politics is hard and nuanced; total victory is rarely achieved (and never enduring). In the simplified world, Silicon Valley has created for you, the good guys (sharing carers, or pirates) are easily identified, they wear white hats. And the bad guys (copyright holders) are always trying to do you down. Silicon Valley merely asks the copyfighter to remain in a state of permanent adolescence, but hating on IP has become entrenched with our intellectuals and public policy elites. I always hesitate before pointing out to an academic the huge public support for copyright – because it risks sending the listener into anaphylactic shock. They're committed to a cause nobody really supports. Fewer rights! Take my stuff!

"There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them," Orwell once wrote, and making copyright weaker is one of them.

This year, however, the copyfighters' response to World IP Day is strangely muted. Perhaps it was the victory of Trump, which highlighted a deeply dysfunctional news market, highlighting the role of the Silicon Valley ad duopoly in incentivising trash.

Perhaps it's the all-pervasive tracking ("Privacy is theft!") that feels increasingly creepy and tacky. Perhaps it's plain that a dysfunctional market means risk-averse creative industries: Hollywood is doing too many remakes or superhero movies and the music industry too much homogenous pop – both an indirect consequence of a less diverse market.

Or perhaps it's just become plain that fighting for weaker rights is a cause so clearly at odds with what the public wants, which is more control. Perhaps the examples of "oppression" cited by copyfighters are now so trivial and arcane that copyfighters today can appear at best tone deaf and at worst a little bit mentally ill. See the campaign graphics above.

Last year Europe's only pirate MEP (there used to be seven) attempted a stunt for World IP Day, claiming that she "couldn't read" Ann Frank's Diary. She could, it turned out, but simply didn't want to pay to read it. As we noted: "The proceeds go not to some corporate bank account, but to the Anne Frank Foundation, a charity that among other good deeds provides medical assistance to Holocaust survivors."

No such stunts from Ms Reda this year.

Yet Silicon Valley remains in limbo. The great flush of enthusiasm for new communication technologies has waned, but the next era of internet growth, which harnesses rather than fights IP, is yet to dawn.

We've always been blessed at The Register, with so many readers in IP-based industries like high-tech engineering and AV, the latter enjoying a boom for techies in the UK right now (with outsourcing in commercial IT, few sectors give techies decent jobs nowadays). So IP has always been received with more nuance than elsewhere. The angry copyfighter is swiftly corrected: whatever fix you propose, it has to fix the market, not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

So perhaps you have some ideas. ®

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