Why the copyright wars matter: a reply to Helienne Lindvall

In this week's Guardian column, "The real cost of free," I reply to last week's broadside by my fellow Guardian columnist Helienne Lindvall, who accused me of charging enormous fees to encourage creators to give their works away. After correcting the record on fees (most of my talks are free, a small number are paid for, and a tiny fraction of those are paid for at large amounts), I go to the meat of the issue: what is it that I tell people when they ask me to speak at their events?
But I don't care if you want to attempt to stop people from copying your work over the internet, or if you plan on building a business around this idea. I mean, it sounds daft to me, but I've been surprised before.

But here's what I do care about. I care if your plan involves using "digital rights management" technologies that prohibit people from opening up and improving their own property; if your plan requires that online services censor their user submissions; if your plan involves disconnecting whole families from the internet because they are accused of infringement; if your plan involves bulk surveillance of the internet to catch infringers, if your plan requires extraordinarily complex legislation to be shoved through parliament without democratic debate; if your plan prohibits me from keeping online videos of my personal life private because you won't be able to catch infringers if you can't spy on every video.

And this is the plan that the entertainment industries have pursued to in their doomed attempt to prevent copying. The US record industry has sued 40,000 people. The BBC has received Ofcom's approval to use our mandatory licence fees to lock up its broadcasts with DRM so that we can't tinker with or improve on our own TVs and recorders (and lest you think that this is no big deal, keep in mind that the entire web was created by amateurs tinkering with systems around them). What's more Apple, Audible, Sony and others have stitched up several digital distribution channels with mandatory DRM requirements, so copyright holders don't get to choose to make their works available on equitable terms.

In France, the HADOPI "three strikes" rule just went into effect; they're sending out 10,000 legal threats a week now, and have promised 150,000 a week in short order. After three unsubstantiated accusations of infringement, your whole family is disconnected from the Internet -from work, education, civic engagement, distant relatives, health information, community. And of course, we'll have the same regime here shortly, thanks to the Digital Economy Act, passed in a three-whip washup in the last days of parliament without any substantive debate, despite the thousands and thousands of Britons who asked their legislators to at least discuss this extraordinarily technical legislation before passing it into law.

The real cost of free