KILLING THE CONVERSATION: CONCERNING COPYRIGHT CRIMINALIZATION, THE ...September 20, 2016
The following story was shared with me by various people, but I want to draw attention to the presentation of the issue in the Daily Bell, and offer my own thoughts on what is going on. I rarely do such "op-ed" pieces, but since I make my living as a writer, I see two emerging trends with the issue, both of which are extremely dangerous, and it's time to restore sanity to the issue.
The story is that a court in India has curtailed the galloping corporate attempt to criminalize copyright violations, and to view the slightest thing as such infractions:
So what's the problem here, this is a victory right?
Well, perhaps it is a Pyrrhic one.
On the positive side, it is true that wrapped in the oily rags of the recent "free trade" deals is a philosophy that is designed to use copyright to curtail free speech, and academic and critical review of any sort. This has been a deliberate strategy, and any professional writer these days has encountered it. If, on the one hand, one does write a corporation to obtain permission to cite or quote a publication, more often than not one waits for months to hear back from the corporation. Here's an example: when I was writing Bablyon's Banksters I wrote a major company - and included a stamped self-addressed envelope - for permission to use a few frames of an old comic book to make a critical argument about the financial system. The envelope was clearly addressed to the correct department. Perhaps that department is overwhelmed by permission requests, but I highly doubt it. If a similar request had come from a representative of some major corporation, the permission would probably have been granted, settled, and all documentation handled that very day, within a week at the outside. I was small fry, so in my case, I waited five months to hear back from said corporation, and finally gave up and published Babylon's Banksters without the original intended frames. Two months after I sent to manuscript to the publisher, the corporation finally replied.
And the nature of their response was highly instructive: all I had to do was acknowledge the original publication and the author/artist. In other words, all I had to do was acknowledge the source, specifically. All I had to do was footnote, which, of course, being academically trained, I do anyway. Even if one is not quoting someone's actual words, academic standards of citation requires the acknowledgement - the "footnoting" - of the source from which one is drawing a piece of information, an opinion, an analysis, or whatever. But it took that corporate behemoth months to compose a simple letter (five minutes), put it in the stamped envelop I sent them (after all, I didn't want to cut into their "bottom line", and a task, making allowances for bureaucratic sluggishness, taking at best another five minutes, and add it to the outgoing mail pile, another five minutes).
This, in effect, is the strategy being used to defeat free speech, open publication, argument, and exchange of ideas: permissions take forever to acquire, and by the time a response - if any - is given, the conversation has moved on. If, on the other hand, permissions are not sought, as in many cases, then the corporation falls on the "violator" like a ton of bricks. In one case, I sent a permission-to-cite letter to a corporation to cite extensively from a book that my co-author of Rotten to the (Common) Core (Gary Lawrence) and I wanted to bring to readers' attention. if anything, we were trying to promote that author's book in our own and get people to go out and buy it, because we thought it was that good. Once again, I sent a stamped self-addressed envelop to said corporation and to the address given in the front of its publication to ask for permissions. We received no response. And still haven't. We had to proceed without our originally planned block quotations from that book, and it degraded the quality of our own book as a result.
But again, their response, had they had the courtesy to give one, would have been the same: acknowledge the source, title, author, publication, page number(s) from which the quotations appeared, and so on. In other words, in effect, we would have been told to footnote, to give a citation reference. Which is standard practice in research anyway.
So it's a two-pronged corporate strategy to shut down free speech, discussion, commentary, critical analysis, speculation, and argument: (1) delay, and (2) sue. And of course, one may add to this a third strategy: (3) deny permission, if sought, to a source requesting it that one suspects might be opposed to one's own view. And that, of course, is censorship.
And the court in India just put a stop to it, and said, enough is enough. And rightly so, for while copyright may not be a divine right, free speech is, and the problem with free speech is that one must own one's words, i.e., be responsible for them. Once they're out there on the record, as it were, they are fair game if one cites the source and all pertinent information on where to find the words or point being discussed, and one does not need a permission letter to do so provided the citation is there. In other words, I am arguing that citation itself argues that the intention of permission is fulfilled. If the current trends in corporate copyright strategy continue, all discussion, all analysis, all speech, all newspapers, TV commentaries, and so on, will shut down. Completely. Totally. And with that, the gears of civilization and progress and creativity and invention and technological innovation will cease with it. In short, the road that corporations are on with respect to this issue is a dead end. Literally. No one will be able to play someone else's music in a coffee house with a hat on the floor for tips and donations without violating copyright, even though they may specifically say "we're now going to do a song by the Beatles, or Johnny Cash," or whomever, without violating copyright and having a corporation haul them into court.
So on that score, kuddos to the court in India.
...on the other hand, the end result of the kind of radical LIbertarian approach implicated in The Daily Bell's article is a similar dead end, and I dare call it Marxism. For the whole point of large corporations - Disney or Sony or Random House or whoever - who publish a film, or a music recording, or a book, is to foster creativity and discussion. After all, composers, film makers, actors, artists, authors, movie studios or recording corporations, make their living off their creations. That's the whole purpose of copyright: to allow them to do so. But in the "radical libertarian world", once it's out there, it's free to anyone. From each according to their ability, to each according to their necessity. Notably, the Daily Bell piece ends this way:
There are plenty of ways that creative people can make money absent patents and intellectual property rights. But one ought not to be confused about the larger framework. For such an environment to work properly, state-supported corporate power has to diminish. Corporate person-hood (which didn’t exist before the Civil War) and monopoly central banking will come under attack as well.
Notably absent here is any specific elucidation of how "creative people can make money absent patents and intellectual property rights." If one does not own one's creation as property then there is no property of any kind. And this is the ultimate Marxist reductio.
So what's the solution? The solution has been there all along, for it evolved precisely from the considerations of property in balance with the considerations for free speech, thought, and inquiry: the footnote, for the footnote is the end result of the "permission" to cite, and hence, I would argue, fulfills the requirement for the intention not to infringe on someone else's property. It acknowledges the original creator's words, notes, films, pictures, and also acknowledges the fact that human bureaucracies - corporate or otherwise - are always slower than the processes of creativity and the conversations about them. This means, too, that one cannot simply "lift" someone else's work, and publish the whole thing on the internet or elsewhere, at a cheaper price, or even free, without doing damage to that individual's or corporation's bottom line and ability - quite literallly - to survive.
And with ebook formats ruining the ability for accurate scholarly citations in referencing orthography, and the dumbed-down systems of citations promoted by modern American quackademia, it's high time to get back to real books, with real citations, and to restore the conversation. These the current corporate strategies, or radical libertarian and in effect, disguised Marxist arguments, fail to do.
See you on the flip side...