Does the entertainment industry have too much power?

In America a congressional staffer gets fired, and in Britain an indie music website gets blocked, all in the name of rent-seeking.

Vested interests have too much say in most areas of public policy, but only in some do they actually have direct control. Two stories today highlight the ridiculous amount of authority which governments all over the world have ceded to entertainment industries when it comes to creating and enforcing intellectual property law.

In the USA, a Republican congressional staffer called Derek Khanna wrote a memo titled "Three Myths About Copyright Law and Where To Start To Fix It" (mirrored here). It was a strong piece, arguing that it was untrue to claim that:

  1. The purpose of copyright is to compensate the creator of content;
  2. Copyright is free market capitalism at work; or
  3. The current copyright legal regime leads to the greatest innovation and productivity.

(The first is certainly mythical, at least in the US context, where the explicit reason for copyright is "to promote the progress of science and useful arts"; arguing against the second, he attempts to appeal to his fellow Republicans by repositioning copyright protection as a big-government-bestowed monopoly; and against the third – really, where the meat lies – he points out that current US copyright law is far more concerned with rent-seeking than encouraging creation of new works.)

Khanna's paper, while no more anti-copyright than a thousand silicon valley opinion columns, was retracted less than a day later, with the executive director of the Republican Study Committee – the organisation which published it – claiming it was:

Was published without adequate review [and failed to approach the topic] with all facts and viewpoints in hand.

That's not what the insider story is, though. Techdirt's Mike Masnick wrote:

The report had been fully vetted and reviewed by the RSC before it was released. However, as soon as it was published, the MPAA and RIAA apparently went ballistic and hit the phones hard, demanding that the RSC take down the report. They succeeded.

Yesterday, Khanna was fired. The Washington Examiner's Timothy P. Carney [explains]:

The reason, according to two Republicans within the RSC: angry objections from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, whose district abuts Nashville, Tenn. In winning a fifth term earlier in the month, Blackburn received more money from the music industry than any other Republican congressional candidate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Blackburn's office did not return calls seeking comment.

Again, it's worth pointing out that nothing Khanna said was new, or outrageous, and his paper was picked up approvingly by other liberatarian-minded conservatives like Virginia Postrel and Alex Tabarrok. His only mistake was writing it while working in a position where the complaints of the entertainment industry could get him fired.

Meanwhile, in the UK, our music industry has been taking an even more active role in the law, hand-picking which websites are allowed to publish. Music website the Promo Bay is a side project of file-sharing website the Pirate Bay which allows independent artists to upload their own songs to be shared freely. Not only is there no copyright infringement going on, there is actually a queue to be featured.

Nonetheless, the BPI – industry body of the British record industry – obtained a court order to block the Promo Bay, listing it as a domain:

Whose sole or predominant purpose is to enable or facilitate access to The Pirate Bay website.

That block which was only rescinded after a petition and complaint from the Open Rights Group.

It is clear that the Promo Bay was wrongly blocked – possibly by accident, possibly due to an overzealous claim by the BPI. What's less clear is why we should accept a situation where a single mistaken claim by an industry group can censor, without warning or appeal, a popular, useful, and legal site. After all, the New Statesman has linked to file-sharing sites – in an effort to get round the "Great Firewall of China". Should we be fearing a court order?

The Promo Bay logo.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.