Over at The Daily Beast, Thomas W. Hodgkinson has a written a sharp, concise essay on just how stupid copyright laws really are, especially when it comes to constipating not just freedom of expression but the creativity of that expression. This passage jumped out at me like a tiger tiger burning bright in the jungles of the night (a Blakean phrase not currently under license, btw):
A year or two ago, the acclaimed British author Blake Morrison wrote an article about the charges he'd paid for quoting, in a novel, one line by Mick Jagger (£500) and two by Bob Marley (£1,000). Weigh that up against the £5,000 average advance over here for a first novel. I won't tell you what I got for my first novel when it was bought recently by a publisher. Let's just say it was less than the average. So it made sense when I was asked to remove all song quotes, of which there were a few. I see now, also, that it's a bit of a cheat to quote songs in novels: a cheap short-cut to creating a mood.
I'm as big a Stones fan as the next person, but I don't think anything Sir Mick has written is worth £500.
Talk about literary Stockholm Syndrome! Does Hodgkinson really think song lyrics are just a "cheap short-cut to creating a mood"? As if! Sure they can be, but they can also be the perfect way to get across what an author is trying to say, especially when a writer performs some sort of literary alchemy on them. As The Godfathers once put it, "Things ain't what they used to be, Cary Grant's on LSD," know what I mean?
Hodgkinson has a book coming out in November that offers by his own account "potted introductions" to "the 250 names that intellectuals love to drop in conversation. Check this out:
With prose authors, we've been allowed to quote pretty much whatever we want. But when it comes to poets, we've been advised against quoting them at all, for the simple reason that we wouldn't be able to afford it.
Why do poets write poetry in the first place? Don't they want to be read, to be appreciated? What I'm trying to say is: don't they want to be quoted? Isn't that sort of the aim?
Back in the old days of the New Criticism, there was general dismissal of what Cleanth Brooks called in The Well-Wrought Urn "the heresy of paraphrase." The short version goes runs something like this: Poetry, don't you know, cannot properly be glossed or dissected any more than gossamer because at its best it is a single organic thing that doesn't simply comment on reality but is reality. But don't take my word for it; read the chapter online.
The New Criticism and draconian copyright laws kind of go together intellectually, are equally stupid, and equally in the rearview mirror. They are predicated upon the notion that the creator or author of a text should hold some sort of control over how a piece is read and used: No, you can't quote me that way, lest you misinterpret my grand point or recontextualize my precious words in ways of which I disapprove! Those of us who suffered the waning days of New Criticism in gradjiate school can attest to the utter desolation of the spirit when seminar discussions are restricted to trying to figure out what the author intended and how each jot and tittle in a text perfectly builds to a single, unified meaning.
There are better and worse ways to read texts, interpret art, etc., but we live in a world where power is rapidly decentralizing. That doesn't just mean that countries are less capable of ruling their citizens as they used to be, or central banks are less capable of controlling their currencies, or celebrities are less able to control their images. It also means that authors are less able to dictate the terms under which their readers interpret their works. That, too, is a source of real liberation and freedom.
The idea that you can't rummage through the text of others and pull out what you want, appropriate it for your own uses (or miappropriate it! or reappopriate it!) is simply wrong as a statement of basic reality. Of course you can, just as surely as you can put a mustache on the Mona Lisa or use Bill Cosby pictures to meme him back to whatever sewer he's currently living in. Or use Harold Bloom's doorstop tome The Western Canon not to learn all the proper interpretations of whatever work that boneless-handed old blowhard deems sufficiently great but as a way to keep your convertible couch level (as I did for several years).
All the technologies that worried that Walter Benjamin in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" have been supercharged and, whatever the law says, it has never been easier to rip, remix, and repeat any act of creative expression. Goodbye, unique "aura" within a fixed sociopolitical context and hello to Thai protestors flipping off their government with the three-fingered salute popularized by the YA book/movie franchise The Hunger Games, sexy Islamic rap videos, post-Taliban Afghans getting Leonardo DiCaprio haircuts, and Hobbit re-enactors in Kazahkstan.
As public-choice economics helps to elucidate, copyright remains strong partly because the commercial interests who benefit from it are able to pay the powers-that-be to keep it inscribed in law. In this, Disney's ability to extend copyright terms every time a certain cartoon mouse is about to enter the public domain is not only exemplary but a great instance of crony capitalism. But to the extent that people think and care about the costs of copyright and forms of intellectual property, a countervaling force is building. (Indeed, the intellectual case against traditional forms of copyright and patent is the topic of an event to be held at Reason's DC office tomorrow [more info here]). Yes, deep-pocketed folks can often buy certain types of legislation for way-too-long periods of time but legislators can only be rented, never fully owned. When popular will gets to a certain point, even the slowest-moving politician backs whoever he or she figures is the strong horse running toward the future.
Perhaps more importantly, technology is putting an end to copyright as we knew it, even as the folks invested in strong copyright laws get more and more frantic in their attempts to lock everything down just as that is becoming less and less possible. And to the extent that
This seems like a good time to show a video featuring the song "Happy Birthday," whose lyrics may or may not have recently entered the public domain.