Enabling Our Public Selves in a World of Maximal Copyright Control

With the web aflame this week with talk about legislation that aims to the major media companies exert greater control over the content they helped create (or that they inherited, acquired, stole, depending on the case), I was inspired again by a vision from Lewis Hyde about the need for us to reframe the narrative from simply being one about people who create and own intellectual property to one where we think about ways that we can be and should be public selves and that we can also be individuals with intellectual property rights. The discussion today is too much framed around notions of individual property and not enough around the cultural commons that we historically have had in America. Over the years, that commons has been walled off in various ways (enclosed, much as land was enclosed in England beginning in the 1500s and mostly completed in the 1800s).

I was first introduced to Hyde’s ideas last year when I read his amazing book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership. If you want to get an introduction to his thinking, this 14 January 2011 story on the radio show On the Media about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech delves deep into creativity, copyright, and the commons.

Here’s a pull quote from Hyde in the On the Media piece where he is talking about public selves:

I’m interested in collective being. I’m interested in making it easier for people to be public and social selves, as Martin Luther King certainly was. The risk is that if we turn everything into private property, it becomes harder and harder for us to have these common or collective selves, which is something we need. In anthropology, there’s an interesting resurrection of an old word, which is the word “dividual.” So we live in a nation that values individuality; we live in a nation of individuals. But a dividual person is somebody who’s imagined to contain within himself or herself the community that he or she lives in. So it would be nice if we began to have a better sense of how to own and circulate art and ideas, such that we could be present in our dividuality, as well as our individuality. 

Copyright Trumps Creativity

If you haven’t seen the post on Waxy.org by Andy Baio about how he felt compelled to settle a case in which he was accused of copyright infringement, go read it now. It’s a great, personal tale about how copyright laws have over-reached and block artistic expression. It’s also a nice intro to the indeterminacy of fair use guidelines, especially the issue of what counts as a transformative use.

Thanks to Jessamyn West for her retweet that brought this to my attention.

Renaming This Blog: Beating the Bounds

I’m about a third of the way into Lewis Hyde’s latest book, Common as Air, which looks examines the idea of a “cultural commons” in America. In an early chapter, Hyde gives a thumbnail sketch of the idea of a commons as they once existed in England before the enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries. Before most of the commons were lost to land grabs by private owners, there were a rich set of traditions and practices governing the use of the commons. One of the more interesting annual traditions was known as “beating the bounds,” which occurred around the Christian celebration of the Ascension. During the celebration, villages would march around the commons, looking for fences, hedges, and other illegal encumbrances and enclosures that had been secretly erected there; when they found such affronts to their shared space, they smashed and destroyed them.

I found myself unable to resist romanticizing the image of everyday people marching about, removing the barriers to places that were held in common. As a mark of my solidarity with efforts to promote open access to scholarly and creative commons and as an indicator of my interest in removing the technological wickets and tangles that keep our silos of licensed resources from working more in concert with one another, I am renaming this blog from “Stephen Francoeur’s Stuff” (a massively unimaginative name) to “Beating the Bounds.”

Introducing Students to Copyright and Fair Use

At lunchtime today, I just started reading Bound by Law? Tales from the Public Domain, a fantastic comic book by Keith Aoki, James Boyle, and Jennifer Jenkins. I haven’t finished it yet, but I already know that the next time I teach my 3-credit course, Information Research in the Social Sciences and Humanities, I’m going to have my students read it. It’s a great way to introduce folks to some rather thorny questions and legal concepts. By looking at the headaches that documentary filmmakers have to contend with as they decide what can and can’t make the cut in their films, the authors of Bound by Law? illustrate quickly and clearly the way that copyright law has increasingly become a burden on artistic expression.

The book’s publisher, Duke University Press, has thoughtfully made the full-text of the book freely online in various formats. If you want to grab the PDF for the book, you can do so below.

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Helping Students Understand Transition from Folk Culture to Mass Culture to Convergence Culture

Eureka! This summer, I had been hoping to find a short, authoritative passage that my first-year students this fall can read that will help them understand the transition in the United States from the folk culture that predominated up until the end of the 19th century to the mass media culture where copyright became increasingly focused on the needs of corporations in the 20th century and then finally to the current convergence culture where users are with greater frequency and skill appropriating the stories, songs, images, etc. created by corporations and working with it in a way that paralleled the world of folk culture.

Henry Jenkins’ 2006 book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, has a nice four-and-a-half page section (p. 139-143) that provides just the kind of thumbnail sketch I’ve been looking for. Here’s a choice quote from this section of the book:

The older American folk culture was built on borrowings from mother countries; the modern mass media builds upon borrowings from folk culture; the new convergence culture will be built on borrowings from various media conglomerates. (p. 141).

Thomas Jefferson on Ideas as “Property”

Nearly done with Lawrence Lessig’s Remix. In the final chapter, Lessig offers this great quote by Thomas Jefferson:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. (p. 290).

The full quote can be found in a letter Jefferson wrote to Isaac McPherson on August 13, 1813, and is reprinted in volume 6 of The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh (Washington: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1905). The letter can also be found online on a site from the University of Chicago Press.

In Defense of Amateurism on the Web

Here’s another quote from Lawrence Lessig’s Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy that caught my attention:

Just as Jefferson romanticized the yeoman farmer working a small plot of land in an economy disciplined by hard work and careful planning, just as Sousa romanticized the amateur musician, I mean to romanticize the yeoman creator. In each case, the skeptic could argue that the product is often better produced elsewhere–that large farms are more efficient, or that filters on publishing mean published works are better. But in each case, the skeptic misses something critically important: how the discipline of the yeoman’s life changes him or her as a citizen. The Long Tail enables a wider range of people to speak. Whatever they say, that’s a very good thing. Speaking teaches the speaker even if it just makes noise. (p. 132)

Lessig on Copyright Newly Expanding Control Over Amateurs

Here’s a choice nugget from Lawrence Lessig’s book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy:

Second, digital technologies also change how RW [read-write] culture and copyright interact. Because every use of [a digital] creative work technically produces a copy, every use of [a digital] creative work technically triggers copyright law. And while many of these uses might be fair use, or uses licensed, expressly or implicitly, by the copyright owner, the critical point to recognize is that this is still a vast change to the history of American copyright law. For the first time, the law regulates ordinary citizens generally. For the first time, it reaches beyond the professional to control the amateur–to subject the amateur to a control by the law that the law historically reserved to professionals.

This is the most important point to recognize about the relationship between the law and RW culture. For the first time, the law reaches and regulates this culture. Not because Congress deliberated and decided that this form of creativity needed regulation, but simply because the architecture of copyright law interacted with the architecture of digital technology to produce a massive expansion in the reach of the law. (p. 103)


Remix Culture and Lawrence Lessig

I’m finally getting around to reading something longer than an article or blog post by Lawrence Lessig. In preparation for my fall course I’ll be teaching here at Baruch College, “Information Research in the Social Sciences and Humanities,” (the course site from spring 2010 is still up), I’m trying to find more material that will make remix culture a theme for the course. This three-credit course has essentially the same learning goals you might create for a one-shot course for a first-year composition class; the real difference is that we get to take a deep dive into topics that we would only just skim in the one-shot.

This fall, my class will be part of the learning communities program here at Baruch, which means the twenty-two first-year students in my class will also be block scheduled so they are in other classes together. As part of this program, I am teamed up with another professor teaching one of the classes the students are taking, an introduction to ethics class in the philosophy department. The point of contact between our two classes will be issues of ethics; while the philosophy class is distinctly aimed at approaching ethics at the theoretical level, my class will delve into applied ethics. Specifically, I want my students to delve into the ethics of information use and reuse by having them try to delineate the boundaries between sharing, remix, reuse, homage, collage, plagiarism, originality, etc.

The music of Greg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, will be the springboard for some of the discussions I hope to have. Gillis is known for building songs out of hundreds of samples of other songs. Last spring, my class talked about this for one highly productive day following our viewing of a documentary that features his work (RIP: A Remix Manifesto). I’m now reading Lawrence Lessig’s 2008 book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, to see if there is a chapter we might read in class. When I am done with that book this week, I hope to dive into Henry Jenkins 2006 book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, for more ideas.