Saturday, May 06, 2006

Happy, Happy, Joy, War

I don't pretend to have thought deeply about JoyWar - though I do, naturally, have my knee-jerk response to the facts as I understand them - but something Joy Garnett posted in a forum does resonate powerfully with my sense of what copyright means, in a world where distribution and copying are often the very same thing, where media is scrutable, infinitely manipulable, and user-friendly:
...once you put a work out there it becomes part of our common cultural experience, it belongs to some extent to all of us (otherwise why put it out there?); it is something that will be built upon regardless of the author’s wishes – it is something that we as artists have a responsibility to respond to and yes, create new contexts for.
(crediting Judge Kozinski, whoever he is, for the insight)

There seems to me something very true about that - something that corporate entertainment interests will have, inevitably, to face up to; because the truth is that they have already lost the control they claim as their legal and moral right. The RIAA's scattershot lawsuit/terror campaign looks to me like death throes, or an act of desperation - or, at best, a delaying tactic... though they don't seem to be making any progress toward solving their problem, so it's probably not a delaying tactic at all, is it?

I use the term "entertainment interests" because, once art becomes commercialized - as, for instance, by taking it out of your studio and trying to sell it - it becomes, de facto, entertainment. Once you pitch the project, offer the painting for sale, put the song on the radio, bring out the cake you decorated and start to hand out dessert forks - you've given up some control. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. Maybe all of it. Clearly the RIAA and Apple and Metallica's drummer would like to keep all the control... but they can't. They've already given it up, because - you know what? - they put their wares up for sale.

And let me turn it around: entertainment is de facto art. It's entertainment because nobody needs it - or anyway, any particular piece of it; it's art because if it weren't art, it wouldn't be entertaining. But that means the purveyors of entertainment have to face up, not only to the nightmare media reality they've been instrumental in creating, where any kid with a computer can copy anything and give it to everybody... but also their responsibilities as artists (or artists' representatives), in a community of artists. Does Danger Mouse want to remix JayZ's Black Album with samples of Beatles songs? Well, what the hell: he's an artist, the Beatles were artists, there's a social contract of a sort in simply being an artist. As Super Chicken said, "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it." It turned out to be more dangerous than you knew? Too bad, so sad.

I'm not saying Danger Mouse gets to re-package Beatles songs and turn around and sell them. I'm saying, come on, there's a middle ground here, and pretending that there is no middle ground, or mining it and turning it into a DMZ... that's not okay. It's also not gonna work. And whoever's being the hardass, refusing to compromise, insisting on absurdly strong copyright protection, threatening groundless lawsuits against people who can't afford lawyers? That party is going to be the bad guy. ("A" bad guy. God knows, there's room for more than one bad guy.)

To paint the issue as one of "artist's rights" versus "pirates" is absurd and disingenuous, and by attempting to frame it in such clear-cut, binary terms, the entertainment interests haven't defined their opponents; instead, they've defined themselves. They have put themselves firmly in the wrong, by refusing to accept their own responsibility as sellers. Let the buyer beware? The buyers respond, caveat vendor. And for the first time - look around you - the buyers have more power than the sellers. Lots more power.

If only we could get a handle on this global warming thing, the future would be looking very interesting.


At 9:54 AM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

I suspect you'd allow exceptions: Uranium and nuclear bomb-making technology? We don't want those up for grabs, right? Iran is like an up and coming artist, being threatened by the countries who have legalistically secured an exclusive right to make nuclear bombs. Iran's president talks in similar terms about the injustice, talking about pride and Iran being allowed to act like the powerful modern nation that it is. Still, this example just suggests to me we're bound to want exceptions, which makes it hard to win the debate over copyright on principle, and so suggests we're bound to have to argue practical consequences, about which reasonable minds can disagree and about which the minds of people profiting under the status quo are liable to unreasonably disagree without even realizing it (and so the ones who disingenuously disagree have moral cover). Still, I think it's a great and rhetorically useful principle that you're talking about.

At 2:21 PM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

Oh, yeah. . .a "middle ground" was what you argued. Never mind.

At 5:31 PM, Blogger rain_rain said...

Cases like the Iranian nuclear technology crisis-in-waiting just point up the limits of the law. Iran's gonna do what it wants to do, or what they're forced to do, whatever anybody's law says.
International law? Sovereignty and self-perceived national interest can trump international law any day of the week. (Just look at the behavior of the United States.)

The problem is that we can't outright force Iran to do anything they don't wanna do, and we have no power of moral suasion, especially after America's six years of self-inflicted George Bush. There are more subtle sorts of force that can be brought to bear, but that would depend heavily on our ability to marshal allies and use diplomacy, areas in which this administration has demonstrated a profound lack of both interest and talent.


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