Bono’s “One” Ignorant Idea

U2 frontman and humanitarian Bono had a page-long op-ed in this past Sunday's New York Times, where he describes what he calls "10 ideas that might make the next 10 years more interesting, healthy or civil. Some are trivial, some fundamental. They have little in common with one another except that I am seized by each, and moved by its potential to change our world." So let's look at some issues that made the list.... a twist on cap and trade, fighting the rotavirus, new cancer research, the rise of Africa and... limiting the scourge of file sharing.

Yes, that's right, file sharing, clearly one from the "trivial" category. Bono blames Internet Service Providers for "this reverse Robin Hooding" which he says hurts "the young, fledgling songwriters who can't live off ticket and T-shirt sales...." His "big" idea for stopping the scourge? Enforcement of copyright through deep packet inspection and filtering:

We're the post office they [ISPs] tell us; who knows what's in the brown-paper packages? But we know from America's noble effort to stop child pornography, not to mention China's ignoble effort to suppress online dissent, that it's perfectly possible to trace content. Perhaps movie moguls will succeed where musicians and their moguls have failed so far,....

This "idea" is mind-bogglingly ignorant for its lack of recognition of how these wonderful media "moguls" exploit the "fledgling songwriters" Bono professes to care about or how they helped to destroy the music industry through a combination of greed and incompetence. Nor does he have a clue about how these filters would work in the copyright context - blocking lawful content and encouraging an encryption arms race that would allow filesharing to proceed unabated. And of course it is shocking that any "humanitarian" would advocate use of technologies used by a repressive government to suppress online dissent.

But the most absurd thing about Bono's endorsement of draconian copyright enforcement is that it undermines just about everything else he professes to stand for. Look at the activities and goals of One, the nonprofit organization Bono co-founded. One is "committed to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa." It "campaign[s] for better development policies, more effective aid and trade reform. We also support greater democracy, accountability and transparency to ensure policies to beat poverty are implemented effectively." Among the specific issues One works on are the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDs and malaria, increasing access to quality education and ensuring trade policies that "create economic growth and opportunities for the poorest people."

If Bono truly cares about poverty, education, health care and fair trade in developing regions like Africa, he should be against draconian intellectual property rights (IPR) enforcement regimes and for more balance. Numerous studies (including from the World Bank) have concluded that the strong IPR regimes exported from the West to the South (many through trade agreements) mainly benefit industrialized countries. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is the cost of re-aligning national laws to fit these regimes and the cost of enforcement itself. Resources that could be devoted to education, or health care or fighting poverty are instead spent on protecting transnational media companies.

Nor is there any evidence that stronger IPR regimes help promote greater creativity and/or innovation in developing countries, and indeed, there is evidence to the contrary. Artists in developing countries are hindered because the cost of licensing and clearance in strong IPR regimes are prohibitive, and at least one study has shown that strict enforcement of copyright laws in poor countries would "dramatically decrease the already low computing capacity in such countries..," and would not stimulate any local development of software, because "the structural and market model of Western-owned copyright protected proprietary software directly discourages such development."

But the harm is far more concrete than that. Here are some examples from the 2002 "Study (pdf) on Intellectual Property Rights, the Internet and Copyright," by Alan Story of Kent Law School at the University of Kent in England (commissioned by the British Government's Commission on Intellectual Property Rights), which demonstrate how Western copyright regimes have interfered with AIDS prevention education, limited access to educational materials and impeded opportunities to improve access to education in Africa:

a) In Southern Africa, nursing teachers, public health nurses, and other medical personnel who wish to distribute copyrighted materials to students and patients about HIV/AIDS, how to avoid becoming infected, and how to deal with the symptoms are required to pay copyright royalty fees. As a result, circulation of such information is seriously restricted....Most such fees are paid to publishers in developed countries. In the face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in this part of the world, it is difficult to refrain from an editorial comment that this is simply “scandalous.”

b) Both the cost and availability of printed works remain central problems, especially in the poorest African nations.... African public and most academic libraries are severely under-resourced. “Libraries in Africa have been shown to be hard to sustain … the reality (is) empty shelves and worn-out book stock.”

c) The traditional limited Berne exemptions such as the right to use quotations (Art. 10, (1)) or the “ fair practice” use of works “for teaching” (Art. 10 (2) ) fail to appreciate the much wider access requirements to materials across Africa....

d) Distance learning is an increasingly common approach to the provision of educational opportunities in Africa, in part because of internal transportation and communications barriers. Distance learning students are particularly in need of good access to materials because they cannot easily visit a library at their school or university. Yet, copyright use allowances often are restricted only to those that occur within the physical location of a school or a library and hence tens of thousands of students and their teachers cannot access badly needed print materials.

e) There is a major problem with the translation of materials. This is particularly serious as many African countries have more than ten languages.(various e-mails and interviews) In the production of materials across Africa, “ local languages are ignored in favour of English, French or Portuguese.” ....There are also few translations of works from one African language into another ( e.g., from Bantu (South Africa and elsewhere) into Edo, Yoruba or Hausa ( Nigeria) or vice versa.) Generally the right to make a translation must be individually acquired for each translation into a different language. The overall situation reinforces the inequality of languages, privileges European languages, and means that tens of millions of Africans are unable to get access to or read books and articles published in languages other than their own.

f) British universities which seek to establish linked (“sister”) educational programmes in least developed countries run into a number of copyright restrictions; for example, materials cleared by the UK Copyright Licensing Agency for domestic UK use cannot legally be used by overseas students.

g) Copyright clearance officers in schools and universities must regularly engage in heated negotiations with publishers, especially international publishers, regarding the cost and use of works to be photocopied for student use. The rates charged are “extremely expensive” and most copyright clearers generally tend to prefer dealing with local publishers where copyright fees are less expensive.

I could go on and discuss the negative impact of Western IPR regimes on traditional knowledge, access to essential medicines and free expression in developing countries, but I think you get the idea. Even if Bono doesn't.

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