Friday, October 21, 2005
Copyright and Culture
Interesting Inside Higher Ed piece arguing that the CCC [Copyright Clearance Center] might, in effect, be making it too easy to make course packs. Easy clearance creates patterns of behavior, which become norms, which might become precedents restricting the scope of fair use. The author writes: “Faculty and their universities should be at the forefront of the push for a more robust fair use, one that affirmatively protects “multiple copies for classroom use” when their distribution is noncommercial, especially as getting electronic readings to students is becoming ever cheaper and more practical.” I strongly agree, although my (rather uninformed) impression is that the Kinko’s decision, way back when - course packs not protected - means something like CCC is now clearly established as a legal necessity; if that’s so, the easier the better, and perhaps nothing to be done. But ...
This seems like a good occasion to ask a question I’ve wondering about for a while. Why aren’t academics - in the humanities in particular - more exercised by recent developments in copyright law? Specifically, why aren’t they outraged by the prospect of indefinite copyright extension? You can’t throw a rock in a humanities department without hitting someone who hates Ashcroft. What about Eldred v. Ashcroft? Has consciousness been raised? Free Mumia? Why not Free Mickey?
Take cultural studies (and literary studies for good measure.) Doesn’t the prospect of great swathes of public domain threatened by information age Inclosure Acts seem bothersome, not to mention plutocratically sinister, hence (dare I say it?) activism inspiring? Don’t people who want to do research and publish find their work is hampered, or at least worry it might be? I can’t think how many interesting publishing projects would have been potentially opened up immediately, or in the near future, if Eldred had gone the other way. Music, film, TV, radio, also plain old literature - orphaned works, anyone? Sure, the sanctum sanctorum of education - the classroom - enjoys very strong fair use protections. But what about the great book, website, CD or DVD you could have made? Aren’t there lots of humanists in this position, pining to create a wonderful multimedia project but bound by the surly bonds of copyright for the indefinite future?
Why isn’t Larry Lessig a hero to humanities professors the way he is to boingboing readers? It seems to me odd, not because overextended copyright is the most pressing issue in 2005 but because it seems like a social/cultural/political/economic issue that recommends itself as well suited to be taken up by academics - starting with the fact that it is right here on their professional doorstep, in effect. Perhaps I’m wrong in my generalization that academic humanists aren’t terribly engaged by these sorts of issues. If so, please correct me in comments.
It might seem rather churlish of me to profess bafflement at coursepacks, while imploring my fellow humanists to go to some as yet unspecified wall for the sake of copyrights. With Eldred having nailed that coffin shut for a generation, what’s to be done? I dunno. I guess I’m just surprised that there does not seem to be more consciousness of the issue, make what you will of practical possibilities.
I simply don’t understand in general why most of my colleagues in the humanities aren’t deeply exercised with copyright on the grounds you cite AND on as regards their own works. On one hand, scholars in the humanities are far better positioned than almost any other experts (in theory) to fully describe the historical importance of generous constructions of the public domain in the early 20th Century, of the contingent and peculiar origins of copyright as an institution, on the generative conditions that support profitable creativity, and on the likely consequences to popular culture of a ridiculously exclusive construction of intellectual property.
At the same time, scholars in the humanities (and other scholars) should have a clear appreciation of the economies of scholarly production. Why do we publish? Most of us don’t make money from doing so; often, even our publishers don’t do particularly well. Our payment is reputation capital. If so, we’re incredibly ill-served by any publication regime which makes it difficult to circulate our work as broadly as possible. Which is exactly what journal publishers and many scholarly presses have done; what the main commercial association of commercial publishers is trying to do to Google Print. You can get many scholars in the humanities to fulminate about political and economic issues at the drop of a hat, or at least to complain about the culture industry, but try to raise these questions, particularly the ones wrapped up in scholarly publication practices (which are actually potentially highly transformable: it’s relatively easy to see how to make the move to open-access journals, for example), and expect, most of the time, to hear crickets chirping around you.
This is a major concern in library sciences, which overlaps humanities, to a degree (in that the bulk of librarians are humanities librarians). To many of us (and by us, I mean younger librarians), Larry Lessig is a hero, and we despise Ashcroft doubly, for Eldred and the Patriot Act. Those two combined make librarian’s lives hell.
I know I and a few other dedicated humanities librarians try to shout about it as much as possible, in an attempt to get the old fogies that head ourt departments to jump into the fray but they’re all more concerned about retirement than Copyright issues.
"Since copyright veers dangerously close to a regulation of speech, fair use is a kind of First Amendment safety valve, such that speakers aren’t restricted by those they criticize by way of copyright.”
Fair use alone knows the worst truth about copyright regulations?
I hear people in the humanities making precisely these complaints in person, even if they’re not showing up as often in print. Even there, I think I hear increasing hints of young people doing dissertations about intellectual property related matters. Lessig is a hero to those people. Siva Vaidhyanathan deserves a link here.
Churlish? I dunno, but the Free Mumia thing was kind of a cheap shot.
Thanks for the link, Sean. Yeah, probably a cheap shot. Good one, nnyhav. Interesting reports from the ground, Keith and Tim. (Hey, Tim, what did you think about my Moretti post? I wouldn’t mind hearing more of your thoughts about his work.)
Lest my Mumia crack seem cheaper than I meant it, let me be a bit more explicit. Ask an academic what ‘free Mumia’ means, and you are likely to get a reasonable summary of a legal case. Whatever the person’s opinion, consciousness was raised. Ask what ‘free Mickey’ means and - well, that isn’t quite fair, pending the popularity of the T-shirts. Ask what Eldred v. Ashcroft is about, ask about the legal intricacies of copyright extension, ask who Larry Lessig is, and you are MORE likely to draw a blank, would be my guess. So this really was meant to feed into my consciousness point.
We’re definitely exercised about it in rhetoric and composition studies, and Lessig is a hero to many of us; in fact, he did a rousing talk at CCCC (the Conference on College Composition and Communication) in a featured session last year. For eleven years, we’ve had a caucus at CCCC devoted to issues of copyright, fair use, and public domain/commons. We talk about copyright and intellectual property a lot at Kairosnews (a group blog by folks in our field) as well.
Man, I’ve been planning to rant on this subject for about five years now.... But I’ve decided not to sue John for intellectual prospecting infringement.
I’ve encountered two not-very-flattering reasons for the tardiness with which humanities profs realize that copyright extension’s helping usher us into the new Dark Ages:
1) Greed and overinflated self-regard. “No one’s gonna pirate my paper that my grad students researched!” I swear I’ve encountered these people at every web publishing class I’ve taught.
2) The increasingly depleted suck of bacon provided by a “Fair Use” which bad-cop business and good-cop faculty confine to “educational purposes.” The plea bargain approach to culture. You’d think that literary scholars in particular would know that artifacts have some reason to be preserved outside their current institutional utility, that books exist to be read and films exist to be seen, not just taught by licensed professionals—but, hey, it’s a suck, and at least we won’t go to jail....
As a bunch of you note, things have been changing for the better lately. The situation’s so horrific, though, and the horror’s still spreading. Politics and literature? This is fucking GROUND ZERO for that combination. Where are the protests?
Q: In what year do the humanities professors chatter about Mumia Abu Jamal in lieu of chattering about copyright ideolgies associated with operating Linux?
A: 1998, the year John Holbo has time-traveled back to, to make this post.
I win trivial pursuit!!
Yes, John, you’re a little behind the curve. But then, so are the Humanities. (And Ray, isn’t it Scholasticism that’s in prospect?)
(hattip://3quarksdaily.blogs.com/3quarksdaily/ on a coupla the above.)