Toyota struck at the heart of the American soul in the 1970s, and all her politicians started carrying mental “The End Is Nigh” signs. The most American things of all — cars! The American Cars! — weren’t good enough for the American people. They all bought Toyota instead. This was an apocalypse-grade sign that United States was approaching its end as an industrial nation, unable to compete with Asia.
This is the final part in my series about the history of the copyright monopoly. The period of 1960 to 2010 is marked by two things: one, the record-label-driven creepage of the copyright monopoly into the noncommercial, private domain where it was always a commercial-only monopoly before (“home taping is illegal” and such nonsense) and the monopoly therefore threatening fundamental human rights, and two, the corporate political expansion of the copyright monopoly and other monopolies. The former development, where the copyright industry cried impending doom on every new technology to get more benefits for themselves is a story by itself; here, I will focus on the latter development.
When it was clear to politicians that the United States would no longer be able to maintain its economic dominance by producing anything industrially valuable or viable, many committees were formed and tasked with coming up with the answer to one crucial question: How can the US maintain its global dominance if (or when) it is not producing anything competitively valuable?
The response came from an unexpected direction: Pfizer.
The president of Pfizer, Edmund Pratt, had a furious op-ed piece in a New York Times on July 9, 1982 titled “Stealing from the Mind”. It fumed about how third world countries were stealing from them. (By this, he referred to making medicine from their own raw materials with their own factories using their own knowledge in their own time for their own people, who were frequently dying from horrible but curable third-world conditions.) Major policymakers saw a glimpse of an answer in Pfizer’s and Pratt’s thinking, and turned to Pratt’s involvement in another committee directly under the President. This committee was the magic ACTN: Advisory Committee on Trade Negotiations.
What the ACTN recommended, following Pfizer’s lead, was so daring and provocative that nobody was really sure whether to try it out: the US would try linking its trade negotiations and foreign policy. Any country who didn’t sign lopsided “free trade” deals that heavily redefined value would be branded in a myriad of bad ways, the most notable being the “Special 301 watchlist”. This list is supposed to be a list of nations not respecting copyright enough. A majority of the world’s population is on it, among them Canada.
So the solution to not producing anything of value in international trade was to redefine “producing”, “anything”, and “value” in an international political context, and to do so by bullying. It worked. The ACTN blueprints were set in motion by US Trade Representatives, using unilateral bullying to push foreign governments into enacting legislation that favored American industry interestes, bilateral “free trade” agreements that did the same, and multilateral agreements that raised the bar worldwide in protection of American interests.
In this way, the United States was able to create an exchange of values where they would rent out blueprints and get finished products from those blueprints in return. This would be considered as a fair deal under the “free trade” agreements which redefined value articifially.
The entire US monopolized industry was behind this push: the copyright industries, the patent industries, all of them. They went forum shopping and tried to go to WIPO — repeating the hijack of the record industry in 1961 — to seek legitimacy and hostship for a new trade agreement that would be marketed as “Berne Plus”.
At this point, it became politically necessary for the US to join the Berne Convention for credibility reasons, as WIPO is the overseer of Berne.
However, WIPO saw right through this scheme and more or less kicked them right out the door. WIPO was not created to give any country that kind of advantage over the rest of the world. They were outraged at the shameless attempt to hijack the copyright and patent monopolies.
So, another forum was needed. The US monopoly industry consortium approached GATT — the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade — and managed to get influence there. A major process was initiated whereby about half of the participating countries in GATT were tricked, coerced or bullied into agreeing with a new agreement under GATT, an agreement which would lock in the Berne Convention and strengthen the US industry considerably on top of that by redefining “producing”, “thing” and “value”. This agreement was called TRIPs. Upon ratification of the TRIPs agreement, the GATT body was renamed WTO, the World Trade Organization. The 52 GATT countries choosing to stay out of the WTO would soon find themselves in an economic position where it became economically impossible to not sign the colonializing terms. Only one country out of the original 129 has not rejoined.
TRIPs has been under considerable fire for how it is constructed to enrich the rich at the expense of the poor, and when they can’t pay with money, they pay with their health and sometimes their lives. It forbids third world countries from making medicine in their own factories from their own raw materials with their own knowledge to their own people. After several near-revolts, some concessions were made in TRIPs to “allow” for this.
But perhaps the most telling story of how important the artificial monopolies are to the United States’ dominance came when Russia sought admission into the WTO (for incomprehensible reasons). To allow Russia admission, the United States demanded that the Russia-legal music shop AllofMP3 should be closed. This shop sold copies of MP3 files and was classified as a radio station in Russia, paying appropriate license fees and was fully legal.
Now, let’s go back a bit to review what was going on. This was the United States and Russia sitting at the negotiating table. Former enemies who kept each other at nuclear gunpoint 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, through sandstorm and blizzard. The United States could have demanded and gotten anything. Absolutely anything.
So what did the United States demand?
It asked for Russia to close a bloody record store.
That’s when you realize how much there is to these monopolies.
File sharing is not just a private matter. It’s a matter of global economic dominance, and always has been. Let’s keep sharing and move that power from the monopolists to the people. Teach everybody to share culture, and the people will win against the constrainers of liberties, just as happened at the start of this series, when people learned to read for themselves and toppled the Catholic Church.
(Lately, the copyright and patent industries have sought to repeat the TRIPs trick with ACTA, which they now call “Trips Plus”. This is not finished yet as the last word hasn’t been said.)
This concludes the history of the copyright monopoly as of 2011. Let’s make sure we can write another chapter in ten years and are freer than ever to publish, share and spread it.
Primary source: Intellectual Feudalism – who owns the knowledge economy?, an in-depth work on the conception of the TRIPs agreement