Book Review: A Copyright Masquerade

October 28, 2013

It is a rare treat for me to get a book to review that I am actually quite happy to read. In contrast with the skim and (vaguely) describe approach that has seen me through many a book review, Dr Monica Horten, who may be best known for readers of this web site as the creator of the web site, has produced a fascinating insight that actually led me to read her book.

This book mainly comprises three case studies. It looks at the negotiations, manoeuvres and resolution of the attempts to bring in new copyright laws – ACTA, Ley Sinde and the Digital Economy Act. Monica Horten states that the question the book is seeking to answer is whether the power exercised by the international entertainment industry in protecting (and increasing) their rights results in the bypassing of democratic accountability. It is a meticulously researched work (the author aims for ‘triangulation of sources’) with new revelations – at least new to me. It is also, for anyone interested in these socio-political/cultural/legal issues, a fascinating read; many who do not recognise themselves as having such interests will find it of great interest too. Since many of us are likely to see ourselves caught up in arguments over the balance between copyright and free speech, and the associated balance of allocation of responsibility for enforcement of copyright, for the next decade at least, it is a valuable resource and reference whatever one’s likely stance in that argument.

I was certainly much better informed about the ACTA ups and downs after reading this book. I had not realised the depth of feeling or the complexity surrounding the Spanish Ley Sinde at all, so nearly all that was new to me (and that episode is arguably the most illuminating). The tales associated with the Digital Economy Act were uncomfortably familiar; reminders of a time that should seriously embarrass all Parliamentarians – and a time that was not a little embarrassing for most of us who are prepared to vote for them from time to time.

Despite its many strengths, I am not sure that the book does in fact answer the question that Monica Horten states it is meant to address. I feel reasonably confident that most readers will leave its pages more deeply entrenched in their prejudices. Since the book’s sub-title is ‘How Corporate Lobbying Threatens Online Freedoms’, it is fair to say that Monica Horten has taken a view. But many will say that democracy expects and allows rights holders to fight their corner. It is not improper for the giants of the movie industry to seek legislation that strengthens their hand; the impropriety arises from the pusillanimous reaction of legislators. (The extent to which the collapse of individual membership of political parties affects this reaction, because of the concomitant collapse in funding and accountability, is a matter for debate. I wonder.)

Online copyright is a peculiar field of battle. While rights-holders did genuinely battle with campaigners for free speech, it is hard to say who won. The battle was also joined by the giants of the Internet who had the funding and the mastery of Machiavellian arts to match the rights-holders, and had a very special interest of their own to protect. Maybe they won. Compare and contrast: where there was no similar other organised interest involved in the battle, the extension of the copyright term for sound recordings passed through unscathed, though many consider it to be yet another baby-boomer’s tax on youth and the truly cynical see it as a corporate fraud.

Monica Horten pleads for transparency. She compares the making of policy in this context with watching masked dancers ‘interacting with each other but uncertain of their motive’. Her story of the effect of direct action in Eastern Europe should serve to remind all sides that transparency is worthwhile. The street protests about ACTA, especially in Poland, were crucial to its collapse in the EU. To a large extent, those protests were based on a misunderstanding but it was a misunderstanding for which the proponents of ACTA were largely to blame; the absence of transparency created ignorance so the proponents of ACTA were authors of their own misfortune. The DEA debacle was possible only because of wilful ignorance – as Monica Horten points out, the brutal truth is that no votes were at stake because not enough people cared so politicians were not censured for some indefensible behaviour. There, though the lack of transparency did not at first seem to affect the concealers, it left them with an unworkable solution.

Monica Horten has made a wonderful attempt to wash away some of the ignorance surrounding copyright and ‘freedoms’. I don’t kid myself that this book is going to be a best seller (more’s the pity) but I do recommend it heartily. It should foster further debate – and make it easier for the next major policy debate to be conducted more transparently.

A Copyright Masquerade: How Corporate Lobbying Threatens Online Freedoms is published by Zed Books, ISBN 978 1 78032 640 5. 293 pp. £16.99. See It’s available on Amazon – Kindle $16.36& and Paperback £16.99