“Increasingly as Silly as a Sheriff Arresting an Airplane for Trespass”
November 1, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity (2004)
When people talk about copyright law they typically think of “piracy” and how they absolutely would download a car. But that’s not the actual issue. Granted, “piracy” –i.e. taking shit without adding any value to whatever thing, “value” of course being a huge wildcard– warrants some form of legal response (proportionate to the thing being “pirated,” I mean let’s be reasonable). The problem is that copyright law is a very dumb machine and hasn’t been programmed to distinguish between “stealing” and “transforming.” All it cares about is copies, and the making/taking of similar — meaning copyright law as it’s currently written ends up prohibiting (at least theoretically) basically everything people do on the Internet. This is fucked up and bullshit and only serves the interests of corporate entities who find themselves in competition with the creativity and innovation of others, thus creating a system in which “fair use” merely means “the right to hire a lawyer” (187). This is very very bad! And runs counter to everything we’ve ever valued as a culture! You know like innovation generally!
Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy (2008)
Look you guys. We can go on flipping our shit over anachronistic conceptions of “intellectual property” and “piracy” and the rest. But this war is already a lost war. Continuing to fight only makes things worse, not only by stifling creativity and innovation but by criminalizing the behaviors of an entire generation, i.e. turning our kids into collateral over what basically amounts to a corporate vanity project. Furthermore this war would be a terrible war to win, since the triumph of Read/Only (RO) over Read/Write (RW) content would be bad for everyone. Our culture is, and will continue to be, enhanced by the RW imperative, as mashups and remixes and sampling of every stripe encourages engagement and critical thinking and creativity, all good things. This isn’t to say that RW should replace RO; one benefits and is benefited by the existence of the other, in the same way that commercial and sharing economies are neither logistically not ideally mutually-exclusive. Verily, we’re entering (have already entered!) an era of unprecedented hybridity.
In the first section of Remix, Lessig quotes Victor Stone, a friend and fellow Creative Commons advocate/architect: “You know…this discussion will be over in ten or twenty years. As the boomers die out, and they get over themselves by dying, the generation that follows…just don’t care about this discussion. They just assume that remixing is part of music, and it’s part of the process, and that’s it” (97). I laughed because dying really is the best way to get over oneself, but also because Stone is entirely right — internet people (and especially young ones) just aren’t operating under the same set of assumptions as the current –and increasingly– Old Cultural Guard. The issues that needle at the former don’t needle at the latter, and vice versa.
This reminded me of an early this-changes-everything Copernican revolution moment brought on by someone else’s offhanded comment — in this case my dear brother, who in terms of intellectual influence is rivaled only by my shadowy consultant. This was way way back in August of 2009, before I knew shit about shit. Despite that (not knowing shit about things has never stopped me before), I’d written a short thing about the Obama-as-Socialist-Joker poster that had been cropping up on Los Angeles freeways. This is the work of Anonymous, I argued, and outlined the connection between this particular iteration of the Obama/Joker image and 4chan. A few days after my piece was published (I’d link, but can’t remember what all I wrote and would need to read it again, due to vanity; I’m afraid I’ll want to kill myself when it turns out I was an idiot), a reporter from the Los Angeles Times identified the artist as one Firas Alkhateeb, a college student from Chicago who has posted the (uncaptioned) image to his Flickr account. Alkhateeb didn’t know how his image ended up in Los Angeles, and didn’t know who added the “socialism.” Still, mystery apparently solved!
I first heard the news while shopping in a Humboldt County Target— two separate friends of mine, both eager to undermine my original argument, had emailed me the headline within an hour of its posting (dicks). As I stood in the Cookware aisle, helping my brother pick out plates for his dorm room and scanning the Times article on my phone, I began second-guessing my argument. What if the Obama/socialism/Joker image really was the work of a single author? Did that invalidate my entire analysis? Basically, fuck. I asked my brother, a CS student and sometimes-troll, what he thought. He wasn’t impressed –his “meh” shirt already suggesting as much– and told me not to worry. “Newspapers get most things wrong about the internet,” he said. The kid may have uploaded the image, but that didn’t mean anything; as soon as something goes online, it belongs to everyone. Saying that any one person is responsible for any one thing online is stupid, because you can’t. Also meh. This really was a cartoon lightbulb moment, and for the first time illustrated the profound, even ideological tension between how the old guard sees the world and how the new guard lives in it. Hence my appreciation of the above quote, the end.