Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Walker's Copy catfight

Jesse Walker wrote an article in Reason 5 years ago about the copyright wars that remains sufficiently current to make into a new book, Choice: the best of Reason. In "Copy Catfight: How Intellectual Property Laws Stifle Popular Culture's Virtual Warriors", Walker does a nice job of explaining some of the basic problems of over expansive intellectual property laws. Extract:

"For centuries, our popular myths have enshrined the "romantic" or "heroic" author, conjuring new books out of nothing but his solitary genius. This image is popular with nonwriters, because many of them do not know how writing is done, and it is popular with writers, because it flatters us. It is, however, untrue. Every book, film, and song in the world draws on an existing cultural commons. Creativity rarely, if ever, means inventing something out of nothing. It means taking the scraps and shards of culture that surround us and recombining them into something new.

When the government tells us we can't use those scraps without permission from Disney, Fox, or the Sherwood Anderson Trust, it constrains our creativity, our communications, and our art. It tells us that we cannot draw on pop songs the way we once drew on folk songs, or on TV comedy the way we once drew on vaudeville; it says we cannot pluck pieces from Star Wars the way George Lucas plucked pieces from foreign films and ancient legends. The consequences are staggering. Imagine what would have happened if, 100 years ago, it had been possible to copyright a blues riff. Jazz, rock, and country music simply could not have evolved if their constituent parts had been subject to the same restraints now borne by techno and hip hop.

Few would argue that artists shouldn't be able to make a living from their work, or that customer confusion is a good thing. But we've stood those ideas on their heads. Rather than promoting enterprise and speech, copyrights and trademarks often restrain them, turning intellectual property law into, in Jenkins' words, "protectionism for the culture industry.""

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