2024-05-24 06:15:22
Diary, Monday, 24 March 2036 személyes/theory

The end of the copyright system

If I had been asked thirty years ago what I would become, what I would do on my 61st birthday, i.e., today, I would have predicted many things: grandchildren, Lake Balaton, maybe even death, but I would never have thought I would spend the occasion alone, in prison, writing a diary. Imprisoned for violating copyright, for the possession and use of age-old music and movies without permission.

If I had been asked thirty years ago what the copyright regulation was going to become in thirty years, I would have predicted many things, but it would probably have been the last thing in my mind, that after all these years, we would be fighting the same battles as in the first years of the millennium.

I might have predicted that the copyright system based on scarcity would collapse within a decade. I would certainly have predicted that there would be five chaotic years, in which tens of thousands of people would lose their jobs and their livelihoods because the consumers who had downloaded everything before publication could not be baited with the same old flimsy tricks into the movies and online stores, and thus, would not spend money on experiences they had not been satisfied with, let alone happy with, in advance. The products of no interest or value that are forgotten immediately after the closing titles would be left with no leg to stand on – this too, I would have predicted. From the collapse, those would emerge victorious who knew for whom they made their art, who knew and loved their audience, who were known and loved by the audience. The era of the new bards – or so I might have named this period – in which the bards would create a new caste independent of space and time, dedicating their lives to travelling the globe round and round tirelessly, visiting every pub, concert hall, arena, meadow, church and street corner, where their worshippers would await them. Instead of the stars with no warranty produced on a conveyor belt, I would have imagined a million saints who enjoy the superstitious respect of the local communities, following at walking speed the waves they had caused in the global mediaspace, to the place where their popularity would just be at its peak – not one week earlier, nor one week later.

I would have imagined something like this, for back then, I regarded technology as unstoppable. I thought the beneficiaries and devotees of the old order, the Britney entourage would give up at last, they would not shoot Rambo 20; that in spite of every lawsuit, every threat of the police, every technological obstacle, the free spread of culture could not be obstructed. That the defence could always be broken, the cost of legal threat would always be insignificant, all this would use up the supplies within a number of years, so that what was known plainly as content industry would bleed to death. I thought there would be a nicer, better world; one only had to wait for the unavoidable to come.

I must say I did not expect that, though the content industry was really exhausted in the struggle against bedroom pirates by 2015, and ran out of money within a few years, there were some who saw a potential in the ruins of the once proud content industry, and had the means to accomplish what the industry could not achieve. Frankly, I did not see those few getting ready in the shadows, who already knew exactly how they would turn the enduring interest of a handful of New Kids on the Block fans in a long forgotten story into sweet-sounding cash. I should have become suspicious when the hardware manufacturers, not the computer and television-makers, or those of mobiles, but those people, you know, wearing their grey jackets, looking extremely boring, from all kinds of uninteresting and forgettable companies, people who make the machines that control the traffic at invisible nodes of the network, when these people kept buying the shares of their clients, the telecommunication service providers, unnoticed until they took the majority of the seats on the boards of directors. All of a sudden we were faced with a monstrosity as solid, massive and inflexible as concrete, which controlled not only the channels leading to our house, but the entire system of circulation. This incredible power and cash-flow slowly but steadily bought the archives, the ruins of the bankrupted publishing companies, studios, and with these ruins, the rights to all creations of the 20th and 21st centuries.

In retrospect, it was the defeat in the spam war that marked the turning point. By the end of the first decade of the third millennium, spam became so overwhelming that people were willing to make any, literally any deal just to get rid of the unwanted flush of Viagra advertisements that was pouring ceaselessly into their phones, headsets and personal monitors. The deal was evil, we renounced the neutrality of the network, we began to plant intelligence and roadblocks in the nodes; we allowed – rather demanded – the thorough examination of every item sent, and if it proved to be spam based on the sender or the content, its total destruction. There was no stopping on this track anymore, and the more we scanned, the more powerful became the ones who kept guard at the gates, who controlled the traffic.

So this is where we stand now. The new barons see into all the packages they deliver (and there is no package that does not go through them), and they bill mercilessly if they find anything that belongs to their archives. Everything can be found in their archives that has been produced since the invention of radio and motion picture.

What is there left of the unrestricted freedom flashed earlier by Napster? What is left of free access, public domain, free use and free content? Unfortunately, it turned out en route that a complete culture could hardly be constructed from the free amateur contents, surrounded by copyleft licences. It became clear, with respect to the truly valuable, creative, independent fraction of the homemade contents that it was simply not worth giving them away for free, since the network provided easy ways to ask payments for them. The first hit could be free of charge, but the second album was seldom available for free. Beneath these there were the tons of free but mediocre contents published with free culture-licences. They were original to the extent that they were not remixes of other works, but not very interesting: photos of puppies and kitties, forced rhymes, blurry, noisy tourist-movies recorded with camcorders, band rehearsals, school essays. The remainder, the great majority, might only contain a few seconds of copyrighted music, or a couple of frames from a movie, but were illegal as such, as we were never granted permission to use the archives. Remix is remembering. And since it is a remix, if you don’t pay: it is illegal.

Does anybody remember the travelling organ-grinders and hawkers? They are long gone, but there are others who are very similar to these people extinct for generations, who visit us from time to time. We never know when they will come, they never announce their visit, but they are always surrounded by a radio field of a few meters’ radius, perhaps broadcasted by a transmitter assembled in an underground Siberian shed, but it can also be that they themselves pieced something together from the old wifi broadcasters found at the dump. Either way, these transmitters distribute silently, but unceasingly the treasures carried on storage units in breast-pockets: porn, Kubrick films, ancient Nirvana concert bootlegs, mash-up videos from next door, banned documentaries: whatever there is demand for, whatever they could get hold of, whatever they received from others in exchange for new stuff. While you’re handing over the money, the packs of cigarettes, whatever price they have set, everything is downloaded from the pirate broadcaster, sewn into the fold of the their trousers, hidden between their hairs.

We don’t know who they are; we don’t see the same face twice. Sometimes a young, well-dressed salesman-type comes; sometimes a tramp with a deeply wrinkled face, brown of the dirt of the streets. Sometimes the signal is picked up in the bus, in the crowd; we don’t know who the source is, or where the illegal content leaks from. At times they don’t come in clouds of radio signs, instead carrying the archives on physical storage units, their pockets full of memory cards with immense junk. Every now and then we can find something valuable: last time a card contained the whole Radio Free Europe archive, but bricks are more expensive and, as it is pig in a poke, more risky as well.

So this is where we stand now. On the one hand, the celestial wurlitzer is operating full steam ahead: nothing is prohibited, but nothing is for free or cheap either. All commenced recordings cost heavy sums of Euros, so one either sits in silence or switches over to the unbearable channels interrupted with blocks of commercials, or hopes that s/he will find free content that is good enough that from tomorrow it will cost money. Many of us are sitting quietly, waiting for a stranger to appear, whom we only know from the flash of his eyes, for the archive treasure and the latest African smuggled content to arrive.

I, too, was sitting in silence for a long time. Then I, too, set sail. I put my own little transmitter together, collected everything accumulated in the course of the last decades on dusty CDs, archived hard disks, memory cards, and began to walk the streets. I was discovered soon. I knew what I was doing was not without danger, but I did not think the system was still so alert.

Hence, if somebody were to ask me now what I would be doing in the next thirty years, I could tell precisely and in full detail

(This text was written for Die Planung. English translation by Eszter Polyák)

tarkowski — June 3, 2007 @ 11:18 am

wow, bodo, quite a distopia. like the idea of peddlers, it fits nicely with a funny sf story written by de filippo (i think), in which the internet is dead and boingboing editors are shabby hobos grabbing people on the street and showing them a paper notebook regularly updated by hand.
but i think you miss one element in your picture – sitting there in silence, wouldn’t you start singing / playing an instrument?

bodo — June 3, 2007 @ 7:38 pm

Time Warner Inc.
Mkt Cap: 80.67B

Income Statement
Quarterly (Mar ’07) Annual(2006) Annual (2005)
Total Revenue 11,184.00 44,224.00 42,401.00
Gross Profit 4,454.00 17,811.00 16,812.00
Operating Income 2,540.00 7,362.00 3,984.00
Net Income 1,203.00 6,552.00 2,671.00

Cisco Systems
Mkt Cap: 163.07B

Income Statement
Quarterly (Apr ’07) Annual(2006) Annual (2005)
Total Revenue 8,866.00 28,484.00 24,801.00
Gross Profit 5,647.00 18,747.00 16,671.00
Operating Income 2,197.00 6,996.00 7,416.00
Net Income 1,874.00 5,580.00 5,741.00

Miguel Caetano — June 4, 2007 @ 4:48 pm

Hi, Bodo

I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve translated the text into Portuguese:


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