Why the 'Dancing Baby' copyright case is just hi-tech victim shaming

Want to be a Silicon Valley serf? Keep handing over those rights, rubes

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Analysis Silicon Valley's great triumph has been persuading people to give up their rights, and be happy to do so. And tech oligarchs aren't worried about fighting dirty to make it happen: victim shaming is now part of the arsenal.

Modern technology – and in particular the miracle of the internet – has allowed billions of people to become creators, who can now access a global audience at low cost. Over centuries, society enshrined laws allowing the individual to own and control their stuff, creating markets.

In theory, the last twenty years should have seen more people enter the creative economy, either leaving their old jobs behind or finding a lucrative addition to their daytime drudgery. We should by now have a very diverse and dispersed mass of creators. The world should look a happier place.

But that hasn't happened. Silicon Valley has built huge corporate data plantations, so-called because they've amassed windfall profits from aggregating this traffic. When an individual asserts ownership on their digital stuff, it's an inconvenience for them: they're lazy, frankly, having got fabulously rich by not doing very much, and they wish to stay lazy. Who wouldn't? So Silicon Valley's powerful corporate interests want these rights destroyed and will go to great lengths to do so. They don't want us to enjoy those real-world, offline historical rights and use them online.

So instead of a rich and diverse creative economy – one that enfranchises billions of amateurs who wouldn't otherwise have been bringing their creative work to a global audience (or even be doing the work at all) and increases choices for pros – Silicon Valley's plantation owners try to distract us from the true nature of their digital exploitation. Occasionally, they'll hold up a lottery winner to admire, some lucky rube who had worked on their plantation ceaselessly and won a prize: a "YouTube star". Or they'll try and persuade us that being poor is noble, or even a duty. In the Dave Eggars novel The Circle, the Google-like internet monopoly constantly reminds people that "Sharing is Caring": to withhold one's digital stuff from the collective is an expression of selfishness. Asserting ownership, of course, is utterly taboo and leads to public shaming.

This is the context needed to understand the "Dancing Baby" case. The case, formally Lenz vs UMG, is a public shaming. The decision reached on Monday by a US Ninth Circuit Court was merely the latest step in a case that Silicon Valley has been doggedly fighting for eight years.

The reason it's still pinging around the US courts after so long is because Silicon Valley has a goal in mind: it wants to blow away one part of the law giving the individual rights. If Big Tech can get the public to cheer as they disenfranchise themselves, then victory will be all the sweeter. Google, Tumblr and Twitter all piled into the latest round, and the Silicon Valley-funded activist shop the EFF was the litigant.

Lenz is best thought of as a tactic in a larger strategy. Another victim-shaming tactic, used to confuse and intimidate individuals so they don't claim their rights, is a Google-funded project called Chilling Effects. We can define "victim shaming" as where the process of seeking justice punishes the victim more than it hurts the perpetrator, and it relies on the fear of unknown reprisals.

Both Lenz and Chilling Effects have the same goal: to make you think twice about asserting your ownership of your own digital stuff. The Utopia envisaged by Silicon Valley's current oligarchs does not have individual ownership of bits in it.

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