Friday, June 01, 2007

A Modest Proposal

Before too much time passes I want to take a moment to address the arguments in Mark Helprin's "A Great Idea Lives Forever, Shouldn't Its Copyright," which asserts that copyrights should never expire since other kinds of property can't be snatched from one's descendants and that since intellectual property is the most culturally valuable form of capital, it should therefore be the most protected. Lawrence Lessig has since set up a wiki that seeks to rebut Helprin's argument point-by-point. Certainly Helprin's claims seem vulnerable to savvy counterarguments. As a writer, he must know that great books often borrow from other great books; even the fact that he calls one of his books Winter's Tale and another one Swan Lake speaks to the added value in at least alluding to the IP of others. Furthermore, dreaming of fossilizing living intellectual property into a petrified definitive artifact is a profoundly reactionary idea, given the times we live in and direction in which the general public is going with their digital practices.

As a rhetorician, what strikes me as disquieting is the power play that such a policy would represent. Works of art and literature are often messages intended for specific audiences, and they respond to a less tangible Zeitgeist as well. Do the recipients of these messages deserve any credit? In the classical world, a muse may be credited with a stirring composition, and in contemporary life readers and viewers are still part of the cycle of aesthetic production. Of course, great works may transcend their original audiences and purposes, and it is precisely this ability to go beyond the initial intentions of their creators that gives us the rich cultural legacy that we enjoy today. It is the possibility of appropriating and interacting with art and literature that gives it its meaning.

I also have a deep political mistrust of this kind of policy, given the way that copyright is often used to quash free speech, particularly in the case of a presidential administration that has even attempted to restrict usually Constitutionally protected expressions, such as political satire in the case of parody websites. Even works that were intended to publicize human rights abuses can be appropriated and exploited by others when they are treated as property rather than discourse in the public sphere.

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