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By Cory Doctorow

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(Originally published as “How Hollywood, Congress, and DRM are Beating Up the American Economy,” InformationWeek, June 11, 2007)

Back in 1985, the Senate was ready to clobber the music industry for exposing America’s impressionable youngsters to sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Today, the Attorney General is proposing to give the RIAA legal tools to attack people who attempt infringement.

Through most of America’s history, the U.S. government has been at odds with entertainment giants, treating them as purveyors of filth. But not anymore: today, the U.S. Trade Rep using America’s political clout to force Russia to institute police inspections of its CD presses (savor the irony: post-Soviet Russia forgoes its hard-won freedom of the press to protect Disney and Universal!).

How did entertainment go from trenchcoat pervert to top trade priority? I blame the “Information Economy.”

No one really knows what “Information Economy” means, but by the early 90s, we knew it was coming. America deployed her least reliable strategic resource to puzzle out what an “information economy” was and to figure out how to ensure America stayed atop the “new economy”—America sent in the futurists.

We make the future in much the same way as we make the past. We don’t remember everything that happened to us, just selective details. We weave our memories together on demand, filling in any empty spaces with the present, which is lying around in great abundance. In Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psych professor Daniel Gilbert describes an experiment in which people with delicious lunches in front of them are asked to remember their breakfast: overwhelmingly, the people with good lunches have more positive memories of breakfast than those who have bad lunches. We don’t remember breakfast—we look at lunch and superimpose it on breakfast.

We make the future in the same way: we extrapolate as much as we can, and whenever we run out of imagination, we just shovel the present into the holes. That’s why our pictures of the future always seem to resemble the present, only moreso.

So, the futurists told us about the information economy: they took all the “information-based” businesses (music, movies, and microcode, in the neat coinage of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash) and projected a future in which these would grow to dominate the world’s economies.

There was only one fly in the ointment: most of the world’s economies consist of poor people who have more time than money, and if there’s any lesson to learn from American college kids, it’s that people with more time than money would rather copy information than pay for it.

Of course they would! Why, when America was a-borning, she was a pirate nation, cheerfully copying the inventions of European authors and inventors. Why not? The fledgling revolutionary republic could copy without paying, keep the money on her shores, and enrich herself with the products and ideas of imperial Europe. Of course, once the U.S. became a global hitter in the creative industries, out came the international copyright agreements: the U.S. signed agreements to protect British authors in exchange for reciprocal agreements from the Brits to protect American authors.

It’s hard to see why a developing country would opt to export its GDP to a rich country when it could get the same benefit by mere copying. The U.S. would have to sweeten the pot.

The pot-sweetener is the elimination of international trade-barriers. Historically, the U.S. has used tariffs to limit the import of manufactured goods from abroad, and to encourage the import of raw materials from abroad. Generally speaking, rich countries import poor countries’ raw materials, process them into manufactured goods, and export them again. Globally speaking, if your country imports sugar and exports sugar cane, chances are you’re poor. If your country imports wood and sells paper, chances are you’re rich.

In 1995, the U.S. signed the TRIPS Agreement onto the World Trade Organization and its associated copyright and patent agreement, and the American economy was transformed.

Any fellow signatory to the WTO/TRIPS can export manufactured goods to the U.S. without any tariffs. If it costs you $5 to manufacture and ship a plastic bucket from your factory in Shenjin Province to the U.S., you can sell it for $6 and turn a $1 profit. And if it costs an American manufacturer $10 to make the same bucket, the American manufacturer is out of luck.

The kicker is this: if you want to export your finished goods to America, you have to sign up to protect American copyrights in your own country. Quid pro quo.

The practical upshot, 12 years later, is that most American manufacturing has gone belly up, Wal-Mart is filled with Happy Meal toys and other cheaply-manufactured plastic goods, and the whole world has signed onto U.S. copyright laws.

But signing onto those laws doesn’t mean you’ll enforce them. Sure, where a country is really over a barrel (cough, Russia, cough), they’ll take the occasional pro forma step to enforce U.S. copyrights, no matter how ridiculous and totalitarian it makes them appear. But with the monthly Russian per-capita GDP hovering at $200, it’s just not plausible that Russians are going to start paying $15 for a CD, nor is it likely that they’ll stop listening to music until their economy picks up.

But the real action is in China, where pressing bootleg media is a national sport. China keeps promising that it will do something about this, but it’s not like the U.S. has any recourse if China drags its heels. Trade courts may find something against China, but China holds all the cards. The U.S. can’t afford to abandon Chinese manufacturing (and no one will vote for the politician who hextuples the cost of WiFi cards, brassieres, iPods, staplers, yoga mats, and spatulas by cutting off trade with China). The Chinese can just sit tight.

The futurists were just plain wrong. An “information economy” can’t be based on selling information. Information technology makes copying information easier and easier. The more IT you have, the less control you have over the bits you send out into the world. It will never, ever, EVER get any harder to copy information from here on in. The information economy is about selling everything except information.

The U.S. traded its manufacturing sector’s health for its entertainment industry, hoping that Police Academy sequels could take the place of the rustbelt. The U.S. bet wrong.

But like a losing gambler who keeps on doubling down, the U.S. doesn’t know when to quit. It keeps meeting with its entertainment giants, asking how U.S. foreign and domestic policy can preserve its business-model. Criminalize 70 million American file-sharers? Check. Turn the world’s copyright laws upside down? Check. Cream the IT industry by criminalizing attempted infringement? Check.

It’ll never work. It can never work. There will always be an entertainment industry, but not one based on excluding access to published digital works. Once it’s in the world, it’ll be copied. This is why I give away digital copies of my books and make money on the printed editions: I’m not going to stop people from copying the electronic editions, so I might as well treat them as an enticement to buy the printed objects.

But there is an information economy. You don’t even need a computer to participate. My barber, an avowed technophobe who rebuilds antique motorcycles and doesn’t own a PC, benefited from the information economy when I found him by googling for barbershops in my neighborhood.

Teachers benefit from the information economy when they share lesson plans with their colleagues around the world by email. Doctors benefit from the information economy when they move their patient files to efficient digital formats. Insurance companies benefit from the information economy through better access to fresh data used in the preparation of actuarial tables. Marinas benefit from the information economy when office-slaves look up the weekend’s weather online and decide to skip out on Friday for a weekend’s sailing. Families of migrant workers benefit from the information economy when their sons and daughters wire cash home from a convenience store Western Union terminal.

This stuff generates wealth for those who practice it. It enriches the country and improves our lives.

And it can peacefully coexist with movies, music, and microcode, but not if Hollywood gets to call the shots. Where IT managers are expected to police their networks and systems for unauthorized copying—no matter what that does to productivity—they cannot coexist. Where our operating systems are rendered inoperable by “copy protection,” they cannot coexist. Where our educational institutions are turned into conscript enforcers for the record industry, they cannot coexist.

The information economy is all around us. The countries that embrace it will emerge as global economic superpowers. The countries that stubbornly hold to the simplistic idea that the information economy is about selling information will end up at the bottom of the pile.

What country do you want to live in?

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