The History of Unintended Consequences of IP Terrorism

A few people posted a link to this Washington Post guest editorial by Adrian Johns.  Johns has a new book out, “Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates,” published last month by University of Chicago Press. Johns is a professor of history at the University of Chicago and chair of the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science.

I of course like that Johns’ book digs into the cyclical nature of the copyfight as played out since the very first statute passed to grant a monopoly to the earliest printers.  While the medium, digital files, may be radically different from movable type, the rhetoric, sides and issues haven’t really changed.

Johns exposes an aspect I haven’t seen discussed before though.  Specifically that the perpetration of IP Terrorism (a term coined by Jan Wildeboer which I instantly liked) is as as old as any other aspect of the evolution of copyright.  Further the histories he shares give cause for encouragement in the form of past efforts in this vein yielding considerable backlash, usually in the form of legislation but also as considerable damage in public opinion.

Johns doesn’t take this outcome for today’s clash as a foregone conclusion.  He emphasizes core principles of which past copyright expansion has run afoul.  It is unclear if those values are strongly appreciated enough to trigger yet another re-definition of intellectual monopoly.  Past reshaping of intellectual monopoly has typically restored a better balance between rights and public interests.  He poses the question of whether such a change is contours is possible today.  This is a key question we need to consider very seriously to focus our efforts as activists.

I’d add there may be one genuinely new wrinkle to factor into the present equation in the form of laws like the DMCA, DEB and trade agreements like ACTA.  That is the ability for rights holders to effectively grant themselves new rights through essentially private laws built on anti-circumvention measures and now potential obligations placed on ISPs.  I see the potential for a much more severe backlash in the face of these but it still is unclear how to incite such a vital response.

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