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The art of getting the genie back in the bottle

It is in the nature of things that the ingenuity of Man will always outstrip his ability to control the product(s) of his inventions and therefore – should he attempt to do so – his attempts will lag way behind the actualité.

In warfare, whether it be developing a fast-repeating machine gun, a nuclear or hydrogen bomb, reconnaissance or bombing by unmanned drones – almost as soon as someone manages it – there will be others who follow suit, whether by acquiring such a device and dismantling it to ‘understand’ the means or else conducting intense research to replicate the capacity (and/or even gain an advantage by going slightly further or better).

Separately, there will emerge ‘high-minded’ individuals who – fearful that if one country or power conjures up a weapon that gives it a real and present capability-advantage over all others it will inevitably at some point use it to rule the world, or at least subjugate all others – who then either spy or steal the detailed science knowledge behind said weapon … in order to help other nations or powers to match it and thereby ‘ensure peace’ by giving them weapon-equality and therefore guaranteed mutual destruction if it (or something similar) was ever actually used.

Man can create a ‘talking shop’ like the United Nations in the vain hope that – to use Churchill’s phrase – “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war” but such a vehicle only ever works to the extent that everyone buys into and respects the rules.

Which they never do, of course, when their own perceived strategic interests take them elsewhere.

Which leads to further danger via the themes either “If they’re not abiding by the rules, then why should we?” or “Whatever we do in our own strategic interests is (by definition) justified, whatever anyone else does allegedly under this heading is not”, or even “You cannot trust those pesky Ruskies (or is it Yanks?)”.

To state that the nature of copyright law and the issues surrounding copyright protection are complicated is probably one of the understatements of human history.

The inventive process – indeed human artistic creativity itself – is a vexed subject when it collides with the use of the end product by the world at large and whatever governmental/economic systems are devised.

Folklore has it that at any one time 95% of British members of the acting profession (or is it just members of Equity, the ‘closed shop’ actors union?) are out of work; that a broadly similar percentage of those who call themselves professional musicians are in a similar position; and that the overwhelming majority of those who earn their living by writing/journalism  – or indeed those who would like to do so – actually earn an average of less than £2,000 per annum.

And yet. Those lucky few actors good and lucky enough – it requires both – who make it to the top in ‘Hollywood’ [a word I’m using to describe all forms of the movie industry] can earn tens of millions of £s (or the equivalent) from each film they appear in.

A couple of ditto aspiring songwriters can come up with a pleasing singalong ditty or two that became Number 1 hits say in the 1980s – and can then live  very comfortably thank you off the earnings that thereafter accrue to them from repeated radio and TV plays-out of them, other artists’ cover versions and even by giving permission for them to be used in advertisements.

Legend has it that J.K. Rowling was a down-on-her-luck part-time writer living on benefits when she came up with the Harry Potter project whilst travelling on a train. A quarter of a century later she’s given plenty away to charity along the way but is still worth over £600 million.

In all the above examples, inevitably a degree of quality comes into it, but then again it doesn’t necessarily have to when it comes to making someone a fortune.

Some of the most annoying and crappiest songs in history somehow become etched into the global human psyche and allow their composers to live millionaire lifestyles.

Is Damien Hirst a great artist, or indeed were Andy Warhol or L.S. Lowry?

Some actors of limited ability and range are very popular and become enormous stars.

Does any of the above even matter?

All this brings me to the news that the EU has passed a new copyright law called Article 13 that will effectively make internet giants like Google and Facebook responsible as ‘publishers’ and therefore responsible for whatever goes up on their websites.

Hitherto – in bucket chemistry terms – the likes of Google and Facebook have maintained that they are just ‘enablers’, i.e. [in terms that I can understand or explain] and using a water analogy, they are simply supplying the means (the pipes) to get water into your house, and who supplies the actual water that travels through those pipes is entirely up to you, or indeed them (i.e. those supplying the water).

From this viewpoint, of course, what anyone sends through or along their pipes is not their responsibility.

Some governments and others have long held that this is an abrogation of duty and responsibility on their behalf and – if you like – the EU’s Article 13 is a first tentative legal step to righting that wrong.

I’m sitting at my computer today contemplating two thoughts on this issue.

The first is that – when I write an email or post something on the Rust – I sometimes illustrate it by googling an image or two on the internet. I don’t pay much attention to those images on which copyright is held or indeed reserved, well only that I tend to avoid them and choose another instead. However, sometimes I don’t, which is presumably a copyright infringement for which the owner could potentially sue me for not seeking permission (and perhaps also paying for the privilege) first.

The second is that I have some small sympathy for the giants of the internet. When Brit Tim Berners-Lee ‘invented’ the world wide web he didn’t patent or trademark it, he effectively gave it to the world for free.

It totally revolutionalised the way the human world worked. Governments used it, like we all did, and from this grew the communications world that we enjoy today and the way it has developed via social media, smartphones, even (to come) the potential demise of cash as a means of paying for anything.

The fact it was uncontrolled has brought us to where we are.

But then we return to how I opened this blog.

It is beyond the wit of Man to control the uncontrollable. Governments can rant all they like about the iniquities of internet giants not paying their supposed tax dues and/or taking responsibility for what goes up on their portals.

But hang on. Man makes tax laws and the internet giants (and indeed all corporations) obey them – albeit perhaps only to the letter (as arguably is their right).

If governments took the trouble to make better (more comprehensive) tax laws they’d arguably get more revenue. But they haven’t, possibly because they possess neither the intelligence to devise them nor the wherewithal to ensure they are complied with.

By the same token, governments make copyright laws. They could have made them in a way that made all who provided the means to access the internet ‘publishers in law’ from the outset. But they didn’t. And now that the internet giants have become as vast and powerful as they are, governments are trying to ‘get back control’. About three stages after that particular horse has bolted.

There’s another way they could have done it – and indeed still could now.

Why don’t all governments in the world just buy or commandeer all internet portals for themselves?

It would be just as easy a route to controlling internet content.

If all the internet ‘pipes’ were ‘in house’ you could keep a beady eye on what it going up on it – and indeed prevent that which is deemed unhealthy, too extreme and/or generally ‘bad for human beings’ from getting up there.

It’s stating the bleedin’ obvious, isn’t it? Or maybe not …

About Lavinia Thompson

A university lecturer for many years, both at home and abroad, Lavinia Thompson retired in 2008 and has since taken up freelance journalism. She is currently studying for a distant learning degree in geo-political science and lives in Norwich with her partner. More Posts