An Initial Brief
None other than William Blackstone, storied British jurist and intellectual progenitor of much of the contemporary nexus of ownership and production, had a very astute insight.
“There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property; or that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.”
In few places in the contemporary arena is ‘Sir William’s’ notion so resonant as in matters of ‘intellectual property’ and copyright. Unfortunately, this ‘exercise of despotic dominion’ has for some time been having the opposite effect as the proponents of authorial ownership propound—creators are making less, or less than nothing; information monopolies in such areas as textbooks and science preclude public access and the ‘flowering of the arts’ that copyright exists to induce; only very well-heeled ‘owners’ end up availing themselves of either registration or remedies. These anomalous, or perfectly routine, results effect serious economic, social, and political detriments, which ought to cause a union of writers to discuss matters of so-called intellectual property with open minds and not assume that established practices and protocols are beneficial to working writers.
The economic nightmare associated with contemporary copyright is also a windfall of course. I.P. has for some time been the prime source of exports for the oligopolistic media-and-technology establishments. However, for law students and other such strivers; for high school pupils in less-than-prosperous neighborhoods; for writers and creators who don’t have sixty-five bucks—now only $35 through the new eco portal–to invest every time they write something and thus will never be able to ‘remedy’ infringement; for communities here and elsewhere who desperately need access to information that they can only obtain in a legally ‘monopolized market’ of often exorbitant prices; and for many others, both scribes and citizens, the operation of the current copyright regime is, at best, suboptimal and at worst a disaster. Of course, these policies do encourage the rich to get even richer, but why should a labor union back rules that help big business and harm a substantial proportion, perhaps the vast majority, of everyday wordsmiths? Inquiring minds might want to consider such queries, even as I and every other union member absolutely commit to fight like fiends for writer-members’ legitimate copyright claims. The point is, that commitment is not nearly enough.
The social impact of today’s copyright morass represents a complex and multifaceted mess that largely elicits negative consequences. One need only consider that a substantial majority of the planet’s teenaged-and-older inhabitants, were a strict enforcement regime in place, would at least technically and potentially be felons under today’s copyright rubric. Moreover, rather than fostering creative congruence and generosity, copyright now operates to cause everyone to hide ingenuity away, to treat the potential for cooperation and sharing with disdain or suspicion. In a networked world that absolutely requires joint, multidisciplinary, cross-border, intergenerational, multicultural ventures to solve a host of hideous problems, fostering a psychology of “it’s-mine-and-you-can’t-have-it” is likely suicidal.
The political outcome of the legal thicket in place today is equally insidious. An invasive police apparatus has to be legitimate if ‘sacred property-rights’ are at stake. The further polarization between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ means that electoral democracy becomes a charade and participatory democracy becomes either a crime or an impossibility. At the very least, the plutocrats’ lobbyists write the legal caveats that further ratchet up the rapine of the present process; ordinary citizens become cynical, ripe for the latest divide-and-conquer scheme or, perish the thought, ready to find some ‘strong man’ who will always end up being a straw-man and a puppet for the forces that originated and gained from the system as it is.
What should be the National Writers Union stance in such a pass? One answer would be to foster a lot more dialog, call for the equivalent of a ‘Writers Constitutional Convention on Copyright,’ and generally to dig deep into the archives of government and the annals of history to facilitate a nuanced and rich comprehension of these matters. Amelia Andersdotter, a member of Sweden’s Piratpartiet and member of the European Parliament, summed up simply when she said, “Copyleft and Copymore Instead of Copyright and Copyless.” Her analysis is at least persuasive, deserving a lot more attention at all levels of the union than it is currently receiving.
The current legislation is adapted for, and even wants to promote, scarcity of information. You won’t find users of information services or indeed any citizens at all who have a relationship with information corresponding to a scarcity model. When thinking carefully about it, you will probably find that having such users and citizens isn’t even desirable. So our information management laws need to change. Essentially, legislators and lobbyists all over the world will have to abandon the idea that restricting access to individual pieces of, or copies of pieces of, information is good. It’s not. We need laws that encourage abundance of each piece of information, and make use of the wealth derived from the fast spread of those pieces.
MORE TO FOLLOW
A Bibliographic Promenade
I am a public intellectual. One thing I might do at this point would entail fleshing out and deepening the simple, and inevitably oversimplified, thesis in the first five paragraphs. However, I’m going to follow another approach.
What follows in a sense does imply argumentation. But it will show up in the form of a tiny slice—a small fraction of a small fraction—of the data and analysis that others have been providing. It will be akin to a literature review or a bibliographic essay, two types of writing that I’ve done in one way or another for lo these forty-odd years.
Folks may well trust that I am all too capable of seeking to be exhaustive in such efforts as this. In these posts, on the other hand, I will point out again and again how initial and partial and exploratory are the links and information that I proffer. One critical piece of taking action is to make a start from which more powerful subsequent work can flow.
What will consciously not be here, at least for the most part, are mainstream views, corporate propaganda passing itself off as ‘expertise,’ and other defenses of or attempts to extend further the present-day standard operating procedure. Working people, unions, and grassroots communicators need such repetition of the fatuous ‘received wisdom’ about as much as we need tiny little holes drilled into our skulls.
What would I like readers to do? Ideally, they’d find the reasoning, data, and linkages that show up here useful. More importantly, they’d jump in and proffer correction, disagreement, amplification, or any “special knowledge” that they have about this topic area. Anyone who e-mails me useful, pertinent links and ideas will generally see their input appear in edits of these main threads. Most importantly, though, visitors here would also willingly help to facilitate and participate in ongoing dialog that leads to powerful grassroots action about these matters.
Instead of complaining and waiting vainly for others to rescue the world from extremely troubled times, we have to take part in learning and struggle among ourselves to figure out as clearly as possible what has happened to cause the present pass. Then, should survival and a decent existence and the prospect of grandchildren-or-something-similar appeal to us, we have no choice but to put what we’ve learned into action, somehow or other insisting that we, the people, are in fact the ones who are in charge.
Neither the future nor the present can cause the past. A first step in orienting ourselves, therefore, has to be a general awareness of the order in which things have taken place. Here are some gateways to timelines on the web, followed by very rudimentary benchmarks for readers to note in any circumstance that involves a copyright discussion.
- from timetoast.com — mainly a cute graphical user interface
- from arl.org/focus-areas — a standard but quite thorough compilation of basic laws, cases, and events
- from loc.gov –very SOP, but ‘authoritative’
- from teachingcopyright.org — downloadable file joins law and technology
- from mkbergman.com — a slick, hyperlinked ‘Information History’ timeline
VARIOUS HISTORICAL ASSESSMENTS
- from digital-rights.net — a very scholarly but also very thought-provoking and outside-the-box monograph, freely downloadable, from Open Book Publishers
- from commlawreview.org — a law review article that considers disconnects in current practice from a historical and constitutionalist perspective
- from utexas.edu — the historical chapter from R.V. Bettig’s classic on the political economy of copyright
- from archive.org — a 1904 book from the American Publisher’s Copyright League of legal cases
- from amazon.com — a classic in the young field of copyright history
- from openedition.org — chapter fifteen of Privilege & Property, by William St. Claire and important enough to list in its own right
- from princeton.edu — a Princeton professor’s factual and richly detailed examination of media, politics, and social relations, a volume essential to include in any such discussion as this
EXPLORATIONS IN THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF COPYRIGHT
All too often, those to whom the present occurs like a load of bricks falling from the sky fail to consider issues such as this. Here’s some help, in that regard. At some point, of course, we should all be talking about what we mean by, and what we know about, the parameters of political economy, without which the discipline of economics is arguably fatuous fantasy.
- from tandfonline.com — one link to Ronald Bettig’s central study, Critical Perspectives on the History & Philosophy of Copyright
- from law.ed.ac.uk — Christopher May’s brief overview, bracing and radical
- from history.upenn.edu — another brief by William St. Claire, which provided key contextualization of many issues of knowledge, power, and law
- from papers.ssrn.com — an exploration of “Copyright’s Hidden Assumption,” that a lengthy inheritable property interest makes sense instead of being an absurdity, except for its profitability
- from publicknowledge.org — a “withdrawn” GOP White Paper attacking the party’s corporate masters
- from arifyildirim.com — a Media, Culture, & Society article with this many interesting points to make.
COPYRIGHT & SOCIAL RELATIONS
Here, where the terrain is especially complicated and difficult to tease out without immersing ourselves, just a couple of links should suffice. This matter—concerning all manner of culture, class, color, and conflict pointers, would be well worth a colloquium and more, however.
- from creativeconomy.britishcouncil.org — a British compendium full of energy, enthusiasm, and reformist further to ameliorate the social cataclysm of the contemporary info-morass.
- from theclassofthenew.net — Richard Barbrook’s provocative piece on the world that we could create
Even the most hallowed experts are often enough decrying the SOP and bemoaning ‘unintended consequences’ that quite logically are part of the purpose of the system. In any event, a few such old hands’ critiques emerge below.
- from scholarship.law.nd.edu — a Notre Dame law review article that reviews and amplifies a copyright patriarch’s harsh assessment of the current pass.
- from sydney.edu.au — another review of William Patry’s How to Fix Copyright
- from papers.ssrn.com — an abstract of the same work
- from law.berkeley.edu — a general overview from a legalistic stance of copyright reform
- from amazon.com/How-Fix-Copyright-William-Patry-ebook — Patry’s volume, as an e-book
- from cardozoaelj.com — an incisive skewering of current practice, especially in relation to Section 412 of the 1976 Copyright ‘reforms,’ written by lobbyists and bureaucrats who followed lobbyists’ suggestions
- cardozoaelj.com — a Patry lecture
Plenty of help is available to our union to assist in fomenting positive change, to foster creative and empowering alliances, to develop strategic programming and action. But we will probably never reach most of these potential ‘fellow travelers’ unless we’re willing to climb out of the copyright hole that we’re presently occupying.
- journals.uic.edu — an incisive critique of present practice, radical and Marxist to boot
- cscc.scu.edu — movement overview and analysis of its likely benefits to the likes of union writers
- from gnu.org — technical writers’ and programmers’ solidarity with copyleft perspectives
- from ssrn.com — a neutral, thorough overview of the processes in these arenas
A variety of ideological methods contain useful ways of thinking as we writers struggle to make sense of things and find ways to reformulate and transform this morass of pain that is the way things happen now
- from law.unh.edu — an overview and analysis of Critical Legal Studies as a ‘game-changer’ in helping to create democratic information and distribution systems and networks
- from cardozo.yu.edu — a forum on politicization, information law, and CLS
- from digitalcommons.law.byu.edu — subtitled “Copyright, Consecration, & Control,” this article seeks to deconstruct intellectual property regimes in a reconstitutive way
- from wwwords.co.uk — a Marxist assessment of often negative impacts on the possibilities for education under the current rubric
- from lexisnexis.com — a philosophical and legal Marxist assessment of the ubiquity of self-dealing among standard legal-economics assessments
- from marxists.org — a plethora of possibly useful and indubitably thought-provoking assessments of various aspects of culture and cultural production
Useful materials are present that grapple with our problems in innovative and unanticipated ways. We just have to do some downloading, find ways to lay our hands on e-readers that make engagement palatable, and start reading
- from virginia.edu — a precis of a McLuhan work that is widely accessible elsewhere
- from sciencepolicy.colorado.edu — an excerpt from Lewis Mumford’s Technics & Civilization, which readers can also find in its entirety in various spots
- from kropfpolisci.com — a recent Richard McChesney analysis; his Rich Media, Poor Democracy remains a must-read
- from cnqzu.com — a potent explication of media and political hegemony, in which the author makes this chilling point:
“Together, these points suggest a scenario in which elites are simultaneously the main sources, main targets and some of the most influenced recipients of news. If this is so, it could be concluded that a major function of the news media is not merely to reflect political differences but to act as a communication channel for the regular conflicts, negotiations and decision-making that take place between different elite groups. This is also to the exclusion of the mass of consumer-citizens. Decisions, which involve such things as the development of institutional policies, corporate strategies, legislation, budgets, investment decisions, regulatory regimes and power structures, take place in communication networks in which the mass of consumer-citizens can be no more than ill-informed spectators.”
- from naima.staff.ub.ac.id — one of Doug Kellner’s many piercing investigations of media and society, in which the reader sees clearly how basic assumptions are so often wrong and pathways to liberation are opposite from the standard prescription
ESTABLISHED INSTITUTIONAL BROKERS NOT ENTIRELY DISINGENUOUS
By there nature, established institutions—major foundations, universities, international or national organizations—cannot help but make deep bows to the ‘gatekeepers’ whom we want, openly and forthrightly, to displace from their places opening and closing ingress and egress to the common citizens whom they view as ignorant fools. Nevertheless, a wealth of information—some of it useful, a small bit of it truly profound—emanates from such locations.
- from cardozoaelj.com — a place to start were one to hope to defend supposed free-markets, precisely because of the incisive and open critiques that so often show up here
- from www.amazon.com — Christopher May’s monograph on the current international regime, with plenty of critique built in, available for free from WIPO as an e-book
- from www.wipo.int — one of the plus-or-minus ten WIPO Journals that is freely available, all full of data and analysis from many points of view
A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS
The best that a person can hope for, in some senses anyway, is that he or she has interesting problems to solve. A final note to ponder is how we all too often merely shrug and give in to whatever is prevailing in the current regime. Johan Soderberg makes this point well, in a way that might provide both closure and encouragement to continue digging and fighting.
“Mainstream writings and official commissions treat intellectual property as exclusively a financial and legal technicality; they operate within the consensus that intellectual property is an indisputable entity. Those writers that do recognize intellectual property as a contested terrain also write to campaign against it. Approaches in the latter camp originate either from the experiences of hackers or from academic Marxist analysis, and the two branches are equally detached from each other.”
Before we move forward, in other words, we’ve got to talk about these things more thoroughly.