Inventions, Democracy, Copyright and Censorship (I)

Understanding how the transposition of the European Directive on copyright may affect our democracies

Those involved in the free-culture movement have been warning for years about the abusive use of copyright and how it affects wellbeing. Covid has made it plain to see. With the issue of patents for Covid vaccines, which have been paid for largely with public funding, the submission to monopolistic interests (in this case pharmaceutical companies) and the moral decadence of European states have been thrown into the limelight, especially as we compare with other countries such as the United States and New Zealand that are choosing to make vaccine patents public in order to save lives and allow for the rapid development of innovation.
This pandemic is exposing the way things usually work. Though there is more public investment now than ever, incredibly, control remains in the hands of private companies: they have the intellectual property, they set the prices, they decide how to carry out clinical trials and they choose what data to publish in press releases, not in scientific journals.

In this context, the new European Copyright Directive is now being transposed into the law of EU member states. The damage this Directive will do will prove catastrophic in the years to come, in a way we can compare with practice like book burning and Inquisition.

More than half a millennium ago, in the mid-1400s, a technology emerged that was new to the West, the printing press. Something similar had existed in China since the 7th century, but in China, Japan and later Korea, Russia and the Ottoman Empire, socio-political conditions of the times were not conducive to expansion at various social levels.
In the West, popularisation of the printing press generated transformation that promoted access to knowledge, the debate of ideas, the emergence of new currents of thought; it was a catalyst at a time of convulsion and discontent that completely changed our methods of reasoning, to the point of placing respect for the human individual front and centre.

By making incompatible views on the same subject much more accessible, it stimulated criticism in general and criticism of authority in particular. In little more than 50 years, the established powers, which had been caught off guard, began a frantic fight to the death against access to this tool and its proliferation. Mainly in the form of fight against heresy and Inquisition, use of this technology was a via crucis of death and destruction for 300 years. Yet it didn’t manage to stop the printing press.

Now we have a “new” technology, the Internet, with a little over 50 years of mass dissemination, which once again allows the expansion of knowledge and the creation of distributed networks, allowing the democratisation of the ways we generate and access information.

Alarmingly, we can see history repeating itself; the offensive against this tool is very similar to that experienced by humanity half a millennium ago:

    1 – We are witnessing an alliance between power and both old and new monopolies for the control of technology and the flow of information against freedom of expression and access to information.

    2 – Copyright, the “right to copy” which, in Spain, at least, is erroneously known as “author’s rights”, are the testing ground for prior censorship on a massive scale.

Let’s broadly compare the two historical moments (PP for the printing press; IN for the Internet):

PP – 1440: Johannes Gutenberg invents a new technology, the printing press.

IN – 1971: The Internet is born. 23 computers are connected and the first email is sent.

PP – 1449: The Constance Missal is printed, the first book in the West. Project to print the Bible. Gutenberg runs out of money before he finishes and the machines are kept by the investor.

PP – 1456:
The printing of 180 Bibles, the project of Gutenberg (now deceased) is complete. The transfer of knowledge is no longer the monopoly of ecclesiastical manuscripts alone.
The “Gutenberg” Bible arrives everywhere: in Spain there were two, one in Burgos and the other in Seville.

IN – 1981:
The first personal computers not designed only for specialists enter our home.

PP – 1469:
Expansion of the printing press. After arriving in various German cities, it makes its way to Venice; in 1470 it arrives in France, in 1471 in the Netherlands, in 1472 in Hungary and in the Iberian Peninsula, in 1476 in Great Britain, etc. It became a real industry and by the end of the 15th century, they were present in as many as 250 towns.

IN – 1991: Creation of the World Wide Web, which was born with the idea of facilitating global connections.

PP – 1491: The Republic of Venice granted Pietro da Ravenna the exclusive right to print his work Phoenix, sive artificiosa memoria, a kind of self-help manual that offered a wide audience a method to train the memory with remedies such as placing very pure virgin girls in the room (“the memory will be excited by the girls”). After its first appearance, the book was translated into numerous languages, an international best seller. This prerogative can be considered the first known example of copyright.

Removal of intermediaries – Maximum freedom
20 years following the invention of the printing press. The powers that be had not yet realised
PP – 1460 – 1525: 65 years of printing expansion
in Europe transforms the way we think. In 1500, it is estimated that 13 million books were already in circulation.
This new technology promoted the free interpretation of holy texts, and movements against hegemonic thought arose: Anabaptism, Huguenots, Calvinism, Lutheranism, and Protestantism, for instance, and in particular against the monopolies of the intermediaries (priests) because of their excesses (in 1517 Luther published and sent to the authorities his 95 theses starting with his opposition to indulgences).

20 years of mass Internet access; 40 years since its invention.
IN – 2011:
cycle of rebellions arising from the mentality and use of the internet. They are no longer ideological, they are based on using networks to come together to tackle problems: the Arab Spring, 15M, Occupy Wall Street, Turkey, Brazil, and others.

Return of intermediaries: freedom considered heresy

PP – 1525-1648 (23 years) – Luther supports the massacre by Catholics of Protestant dissenters and peasants who believed in the movement against privilege. Intermediaries were reintroduced with the blessing of the Protestant establishment, which also persecuted and massacred independent thought. 1545: Counter-reformation. 1648: End of the 30-year war. In general, much blood would be shed trying to prevent free printing, due to the fact it allowed the accurate, economic and rapid distribution of ideas, knowledge and culture.
In the same way that the Internet is today accused of causing information overload, so-called infoxication, in 1550 there were already complaints that there were “so many books that we don’t even have time to read the titles”. Books were a forest in which readers could lose themselves (Calvin, 1509-1564). They were an ocean in which one could easily drown.

IN – 2015: While discourse centred on the dangers of the Internet are increasingly fostered by the hegemonic narrative, there is a wave of anti-libertarian politics against the tools used in the cycle of rebellions.

Technophobia and censorship

PP – 1502: First steps from censorship to printing. Alexander VI let the archbishops exercise prior censorship (also known as prior restraint) and in the Crown of Castile, one could only print with royal licence (precursor to the modern idea of “copyright”).

IN – 2019: In Europe, the first laws censoring the Internet with the excuse of fake news and hate speech are promoted, among other things, by the left.

PP – 1515: Leo X extended prior censorship to the whole of Latin Christendom. The prohibition of printing books without the bishop’s permission is enforced.

(Meanwhile, in 1522 the first edition of the New Testament was finished and in 1534 the first Bible in German was completed).

PP – 1529 – 1873:
First list of banned books. Applied to the entire population until 1873 (last list related to the Inquisition and obligation). The books continued to change throughout but the Bible remained forbidden to read without the intermediation of a priest. On the other hand, the list of banned books lasted preceptively until 1966.

PP – 1535: In France, at the request of the Catholic Church, a law was passed that forced the closure of all bookstores and stipulated the death penalty for anyone who used the printing press. This law was completely ineffective. Pirate printing shops lined the country’s borders like a string of pearls and information spread through smuggled distribution channels built by ordinary people hungry for more things to read.

Alliance between old powers and new intermediaries, the printers’ guild no longer enemies

(100 years after the invention)
PP – 1557-1710: In Great Britain, the Stationers’ Company receives the monopoly of printing (yet another predecessor to “copyright”) in exchange for enforcing the censorship desired by the Queen; at that time, Queen Mary (Bloody Mary) was highly unpopular and could not stop the growing number of publications against her. Seeing how France had failed with the prohibition of printing, even under threat of hanging, she realised that another solution was necessary: bring in the printing industry and benefit them as well.
These intermediaries were granted a monopoly on printing and could enter businesses and homes and even imprison and destroy everything that did not pass through their filter that included material contrary to the queen (see, for example, calls for intermediaries liability to regulate without judicial warrant or for platforms such as Facebook, etc. to regulate what is said on them). This brings us to 1710 with the Statute of Queen Anne, which is considered the first copyright: it grants rights to authors (14 years x 2 and then public domain). It arose because monopoly paralysed the circulation of ideas. Contrary to what people would have us believe, the rights it grants to authors are minimal because the printers continue to decide the price and ask for exclusivity (as they do now).

IN – Alliance between old powers and new intermediaries, platform monopolies are no longer enemies of the powers that be
(50 years after the invention)

2021: The EC has approved de facto the application of upload filters on the Internet which will come as a consequence of the Copyright Directive, providing for prior censorship; there is talk of more of the same for other legislation. Coincidentally, this follows the timeline of when the first index of banned books was written to curb the explosion of free interpretation of information: 50 years.

300 years, 3 centuries of censorship.

PP – 16th – 18th centuries: But the books did not stop circulating and their circulation generated great transformation. The invention of the printing press also marks the beginning of the Renaissance gradually leading to the Enlightenment which was so called because of its declared purpose of dispelling the darkness of ignorance of mankind through the light of knowledge and reason. Little by little the circulation of ideas placed humanity at the fore against privileges and generated multiple rebellions and transformations, the most relevant of which was the French Revolution.

PP – 1789: Censorship begins slowly to erode, giving way to the idea of “freedom of speech” which can be found in the earliest human rights documents, the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted during the French Revolution in 1789, specifically affirmed freedom of speech as an inalienable right: “The free communication of thoughts and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man: any citizen thus may speak, write, print freely, except to respond to the abuse of this liberty, in the cases determined by the law”.

    We must prevent history from repeating itself, we must avoid three centuries of obscurantism.
    The Internet is not perfect, neither is the printing press or writing [1].

    But these are technologies that allow disintermediation (reducing the power of intermediaries, monopolies and their corresponding privileges, even in the knowledge that they will reintermediate themselves by creating others that are just as harmful) that is to say, democratisation of access to the power of information.
    I invite you henceforth to be wary of those who criticise the technology per se, those who say “the Internet is a valuable technology, BUT…” because they are contributing to its criminalisation and to the narrative that paves the way for legislation to take away our free access to it and for the established powers to keep control of it.

    Any censorship that starts on the Internet will eventually have offline repercussions.

    If we do not want to repeat the mistakes of history, it is now time to defend the Internet.


Simona Levi, author and theatre director

Copyright to censor, not in my name

Important source for this text: A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet – Peter Burke y Asa Briggs (2002).

More historical examples of technophobia as an anti-democratic narrative [ES]: