Intellectual Property Law Actively Preserves Information Monopolies

[ Note: This was my sample blog post exercise I sent to EFF as part of my job application. I’m posting it here because I like how it turned out.]

Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, would never have imagined just how profound his invention truly was.  He probably wouldn’t have guessed that it would lead to wars, and entire cultural and industrial revolutions that would last for centuries.  For up until that point, the Catholic Church dominated as the largest publisher in Europe.  It was able to maintain complete control over interpretations of holy text for hundreds of years as it ruled its empire.  With the printing press and movable type however, the Bible appeared all over Europe in plain languages for individuals to read and interpret themselves.  The “One Church” no longer had a monopoly over the word of God.  This diffusion of knowledge led to the Protestant Reformation and democratization of each language’s Christian faith.  If the Church had foreseen this challenge to its religious authority, would it have suppressed the technology of the printing press?  Would they have passed laws to outlaw the spreading publication of Bibles in local languages, asserting that it alone had right to control the word of God?  The result of this technology was a shift in economics of religion, and as tribute payments to Rome shifted to other religious denominations, the ideological and political supremacy of the Church slowly but steadily eroded.

Internet technology is revolutionizing our time, and like the advent of the printing press, it has the potential to challenge entrenched institutions.  Unlike the past however, such institutions quickly recognize the potential threat that new technologies pose to their economic and political orders.  To preserve their dominance over information, they continue to assert exclusive ownership and distribution of ideas through the force of laws passed at their behest.  When the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) or the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) fear challenges to profits from their cloistered ideas and art, they influence politics to protect their economic interests.

State actors, tech industries and civil groups are debating legal standards to regulate the Internet worldwide.  As they negotiate their way through controversial cyber issues, fundamental disagreements arise about the Internet’s function.  On June 30, 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) along with the Civil Society Information Society Advisory Committee (CSISAC) decided to reject the draft Communique on Internet policy-making principles proposed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  The OECD is a multi-governmental groups lobbying for policies by its member countries.  The OECD’s draft outlines laws and regulations its member nations should follow related to the Internet.  EFF points to flaws in the document.  A glaring one is OECD’s goal to strictly enforce pre-existing intellectual property (IP) dogma.  The OECD draft includes text on “Internet intermediaries,” which the EFF and CSISAC observe could easily become extra-legal policing by these private intermediaries.  Intermediaries, such as Internet Service Providers (ISPs), could be deputized by countries to enforce content restriction and locate IP infringement. Such mechanisms as a “Three-Strikes Law” could be imposed and ISPs would independently judge lawfulness of all online content and allow non-judicial punishments to be imposed.

The OECD’s adherence to existing IP law exposes its assumption that no evolution will occur in the law to recognize new technologies.  Mainstream discussions focus on protecting the existing order, but neglect to consider its impact on creativity and innovation.  They assume that older IP laws promote innovation with promised rewards to an individual creator, who will own and control distribution of their creations.  This promise was incorporated into the 1787 U.S. Constitution in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, known as the Copyright and Patent Clause:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

Do existing IP laws give “Authors and Inventors” rights over their creations?  Up until the Internet, people relied exclusively on institutions to distribute their work and ideas.  Browse Youtube to see how institutional barriers to artists have largely disappeared.  All you need is a camera and Internet access.  Sites like Youtube have allowed an explosion in creativity in music, dance, comedy and spoken word, all of which would not have been allowed by the older IP order.

With the Internet, large publishers and distributors are becoming irrelevant.  However, IP laws are intended to favor these aging enterprises.  With globalization and the Internet, people can communicate inspirations in an unprecedented way.  These older laws reward older procedures with lawyers and coercion, forcing people to be cautious about sharing innovative content and fearful of improving upon older creations.  Large recording labels, movie studios, and pharmaceutical companies are responsible for a system of IP law that benefits them.  The other beneficiaries of the current IP laws are the thousands of lawyers hired to punitively litigate IP claims.  The current IP system does not foster innovation, but instead hinders it by singularly protecting powerful special interests.

The social, political, economic and human rights consequences of current IP law have never been objectively evaluated.  Evidence is mounting that instead of promoting innovation, it in fact impedes people from being able or willing to contribute unique ideas and creations to society.  OECD’s staunch support of out-moded IP law reinforces a legal framework extremely detrimental to each individual’s right to create, innovate and invent.  If the Catholic Church had recognized the threat of the printing press and took measures to suppress its use, would the Renaissance have occurred?  Would individual access to knowledge and information have ever become a right?  The chain of events following the invention of the printing press were unforeseen.  The Internet is still a new technology and it is extremely important that policies do not restrict its full potential.  By dogmatically enforcing existing IP law, governments would uphold the rights of large aging information monopolies, and diminish creative rights of the individual.  Laws conceived over 200 years ago to promote individual creation and innovation should not continue to be jerry-rigged to serve an economic system that hurts individual rights.

Puttin' my money where my mouth is

Now despite being a digital rights activist by profession, I still consider myself an environmentalist, free software advocate, a critical news junkie, a sexual/reproductive health rights advocate, and a consumer of art and creative storytelling. I decided to support the following organizations to reflect my dedication to these causes, and to remind myself of the kick ass work these groups do.

Reporters Without Borders

As I’ve started to blog on freedom of expression issues in the broader Asian area for EFF, I’ve come to truly appreciate the invaluable work RWB is doing on the forefront of many critical global issues. I’ve cited to them countless times, and hope that they continue to do excellent professional journalism in the far-reaches of the world.

Democracy Now!

I recently started listening to Democracy Now’s War and Peace report every morning and I really don’t think you can beat their domestic and international coverage of important political news. Bless their souls for not filling their hour with distracting analysis and all the other useless rhetorical crap that comes with most news outlets. When they have guest interviews, Amy Goodman and Co. always ask the meaty questions without any of the overt pandering that turns me off to most broadcast interviews. In short, they’re what news shows oughta be.

Planned Parenthood

They do more than any other organization I know to defend reproductive and sexual rights in the States. They’re doing all they can to fight for women’s right to stay sexually healthy and choose the fate of their own uteruses and I really appreciate it.

National Resources Defense Council

Over the year, I must’ve signed over 30 petitions and letters regarding the XL Pipeline crisis.  I wanted to give to an environmental rights organization and this one was recommended to me.

Global Information Internship Program (GIIP)

I still believe the Internet fundamentally brings out the best in us. GIIP is what turned me on to the idea that the Internet can and should be a powerfully effective space for bringing about social change. During all my four undergraduate years at UC Santa Cruz, I helped run this program which taught college students how to be tech activists, training them in tech skills like web development, database design, and digital storytelling, while turning them into critical readers and writers to help them clarify their mission and goals for project planning and grant writing to raise their own funding for whatever project and cause they were passionate about. I still haven’t heard of any other program like this but I hope others like this get duplicated.

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Our fight for a free Internet is only getting started, and since working for EFF I’ve truly come to realize that this war against greedy special interests and unchecked malignant government control needs to be fought at many fronts with all creative means necessary. We defend a free and open Internet in the courts, in the media, in the blogosphere, and on the ground by providing user’s with the tools and knowledge to empower themselves. Is it weird to give to your employer?  Maybe, but that doesn’t prevent me from donating to them.

This American Life

Intimate, informative, priceless stories always told with such simple eloquence. Don’t feel a need to say more.

Brain Pickings

I came across Brain Pickings after reading an article by Maria Popova, its founder and editor. She wrote this awesome piece (one of the many) refuting Malcolm Gladwell’s out-of-touch claim that social media such as Twitter in fact prevents people from enacting social change, rather than being a tool that helps advance social movements. After a bit of Googling I found out she was a fellow TED-addict who runs this blog/website curating various Internet findings including videos, images, articles, and books. I recommend subscribing to their daily emails or following them on Twitter for consistent doses of inspiration and creativity.

Free Press

FreePress defends the collective information space we call the media. They’ve done a lot this year preventing the telecom merger between AT&T and T-Mobile and I’d definitely attribute this huge win to them. They also completely won my heart after attending their inspiring conference in April and meeting so many awesome people defending public media across the country.


= Wikipedia. That’s all I’m gotta say.

Creative Commons

As someone who is convinced that existing copyright laws in fact do more harm than good in promoting innovation and creativity, it only made sense to give back to the single non-profit doing more to take back our human right to share and collaborate ideas. While they’ve been on my radar for a while now, I finally got around to donating to them.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

One of the biggest muscles we got protecting the First Amendment, due process, privacy, and equal protection rights. While they aren’t able to take on every case, I feel safer knowing that they’re out there defending the greater cause for individual rights and liberties…even if it means representing the less-than appealing clients. They’re legal superheroes as far as I’m concerned.

~ fin ~