The doctor didn’t mince words. ‘Now shut the fuck up and get what’s coming to you!’ In my exchange with Andre Young, the recording artist known as Dr Dre, this was the example he gave of his copyright intellectual property which he fears is reproduced, without compensation, by ne’er-do-wells using www.napster.com.
Dre filed suit and a California judge, to protect this gentlemen beset by copyright pirates, effectively ordered Napster’s closure. But last week, a higher court stayed the commercial execution of the music-sharing website. Dre says: ‘I’m in a murderous mind-state with a heart full of terror.’
Yo, what’s going on here? Behind the angry black face of the rapper’s assault on Napster are the grinning white faces of his co-plaintiffs: the Recording Industry Association of America, front for the Big Six record companies – Sony, EMI, BMG, Universal, Warner and Polygram. Together, these six media megaliths distribute more than 95 per cent of all music sold in the western world. Behind the public tears shed for compensating their artists is the deeper agenda of protecting this global musical monopoly.
According to consent decrees filed by the US Federal Trade Commission, the Big Six have for years bullied retailers to ensure that you get whacked £21 for that Abba Tribute CD. The music cartel’s operations are about to get a further airing. Another California judge has ordered the Big Six to stand trial for illegally conspiring to rig prices worldwide.
Now let’s look at the ‘B’ side of the recording industry combine. As Bill Gates teaches us, a well-functioning monopoly fleeces its customers while simultaneously squeezing suppliers. In the case of the music cartel, the suppliers of raw material, musicians, have to get through one of six tightly guarded gateways.
As a result, the only stuff that makes it on to the airwaves and into the big stores are Spice-bunnies, Eric Clapton plugged up, pre-fabricated bad boys like Dre and middle-aged moguls’ talent-free trophy wives.
In other words, the Big Six don’t just control how you buy what you want, they tell you what you want.
It used to be that industry’s inputs, the talent, railed against this system. That’s where Dre’s posse comes in to give street cred to the moguls’ assault on the internet, the first serious alternative route for distributing music which Time-Warner hasn’t chosen for you. The system must suit rap producer Dre just fine as the cartel allows him and Puff Daddy jointly to lock out musicians who could replace them or the artists in their stable. Dre surely knows that control of his little patch is dependent on defending his bosses’ intellectual property plantation.
Dre v Napster is the musical sideshow of the bigger war over ownership of intellectual property, ranging from ditties to DNA. In my last column, I described how the Clinton administration blocked South Africa’s purchasing of low-cost drugs to stem the spread of Aids. To protect the right of Glaxo-Wellcome to embargo cross-border sales of AZT which don’t meet the company’s terms, Clinton threatened South Africa with trade sanctions under the World Trade Organisation’s Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (Trips).
Today I can report that one nation has finally displayed the huevos to stand up to America’s bully-boy enforcement of WTO dictat: the US. Last week, Congress voted, and Clinton is prepared to sign, America’s unilateral exemption of itself from Trips. US retailers will be free to import any cheap drugs they desire from Canada and Mexico.
When Nelson Mandela suggested that South Africa could issue ‘compulsory licences’ for local manufacture of cheap Aids drugs, Al Gore threatened him with the WTO hammer. Yet, at the same time, at the behest of the ‘Gore-techs’, Al’s Silicon Valley billionaire buddies, the US Justice Department is compelling Microsoft to divulge its proprietary codes and licence Windows to the Gore-techs at a government-capped price. Hey, I’m all for the US seizure of Gates’ intellectual property, but I can’t ignore the rank whiff of hypocrisy.
But then, hypocrisy is the oxygen of the new imperial order of thought ownership. Every genteel landlord of fenced-in intellectual real estate began life as a thief. Under WTO and US law today, how many products built on the ideas of others could never have made it to market? As Isaac Newton would say now: ‘If I see further than others, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants too dumb to patent their discoveries’.
Not everyone is entitled to compensation. The WTO requires, on penalty of sanctions, that every nation pass laws granting patents on ‘life-forms’, by which Americans and Europeans meant ‘Frankenstein’ seeds or drugs, often re-makes of traditional genomes shoplifted from Third World forests.
As the Napster case shows, the new expansion of intellectual property rights has little to do with compensation for the creator and everything to do with corporate control. And no one knows the control game better than Mon santo. In 1989, Sussex University research found a potential health hazard in Monsanto’s cow hormone, BST.
But don’t look for their study. The company warned the Journal of Dairy Science that publishing a negative review of Monsanto’s test data would constitute a theft of the company’s ‘proprietary’ information.
Still, shouldn’t originators receive remuneration? Well, Dr Dre swears his touching soliloquies are taken from The Streets. Has he sent royalty cheques to the Brothers? I confess I never interviewed Dre. He didn’t return my call. But the words quoted here are his intellectual property, and I wish to compensate him. I want to make sure that you, Dre, and Sony and Monsanto and Microsoft and Glaxo-Wellcome, all get what’s coming to you.
Gregory Palast writes the award-winning column, “Inside Corporate America” fortnightly in Britain’s sunday newspaper, The Observer, part of the Guardian Media Group, where this first appeared. For comments or requet to reprint, contact: www.gregpalast.com
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