In many ways, arguments for thick copyright are just more of the same polemic side-choosing that we see in most public politics. We’ve become convinced that doubt or criticism of any current policy is the sine qua non for two-party schisms, and that any uncertainty or two-sidedness is the mark of a hopeless, temporizing waffler. That any insecurity need be squashed, and that our policies should bear no scrutiny unless paraded as political spectacle.
Such it is with a recent speech for the American Association of Publishers given by US Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante. She seems determined to express her position with polemics, as if doubt, consideration, and scrutiny would be akin to a show of weakness. This is endemic of our 24/7 news culture, however, where one is free to assert a stalwart and contentious stance on an issue that – mere years later – turns out to be completely misconceived and erroneous.
Take the battle against the VRC, the mix-tape, and cable television as fine examples of this. Bought-and-paid-for politicians echoed industry lobbyists in asserting the evil of these devices, only to forget their complete lack of prospection when such technology produced more media, not less; more money, not poverty.
She begins with the popular mantra: “It goes without saying that where there is publishing, there is copyright,” which would come as a great surprise to Nigerians, who make 1,200 films a year (the US makes about 600) without any existing copyright to protect the content. Implying that publishing cannot exist without copyright (particular in its current, unprecedented form) is wholly bogus, and implies that the argument for whether copyright is needed at all is completely off the table (which it certainly is not).
She also says that rights-holders have “long served the public interests,” but this has to be a joke. Any “service” rights-holder have performed is – at best – an adventitious outcome to serving their own best interests. Let’s be clear: rights-holders do not care about common interests, about public benefit, or even about art. They care only for return on their investment. This is not – in and of itself – wrong or egregious, and certainly isn’t evil. It is, however, NOT to be confused with benevolence, concern, or public service.
Pallente also makes a rather circular argument regarding copyright “respect” by citizens, suggesting that if copyright in its current form is not adhered to, then congress will have no choice but to make the laws stricter. This one-way-valve approach is for more “dangerous” (a word she uses for a lack of respect for current copyright) than actually thinking critically about WHY people might not abide by current copyright laws.
This suggests that the only path toward compliance is to tighten the belt, restrict more content, enforce more laws, enact greater controls. This wholly ignores the possibility that applying heavy-handed, thick copyright to modern media is counter-productive to all but a select few (those already owning massive amounts of content) and highly detrimental to anyone creating content hereon or to those consuming it.
I understand that context indeed matters. She is speaking to a group of old white guys who own a lot of content, so of course she’s going to kiss their asses and suggest that they are nothing short of demi-gods of information and pillars of our age. She needs their support. But to suggest that copyleft agenda are laughable and “dangerous” ignores the slew of well-educated, forward-thinking, powerful minds showing daily that what she believes to be a bulletproof truth contains myriad flaws. Just as similar arguments from our past we now know and believe are ridiculous, such as copying sheet music bringing about the end of music creation.
So once again we come to a rather frustrating impasse: where corporate-funded politicians and state-appointed potentates such as Pallente have only one rabbit in their hats – absolute compliance. No criticism. No introspection. No wiggle room. But so long as the same economic cycle continues, the same policies will resurface. SOPA will be back. Three or six or however many strikes will again have its turn. The very ideals necessary for real change in the way we handle IP in the US will simply not come from our government, not so long as they remain perpetually beholden to corporate interests.
Oh, and what does this have to do with art and culture? Nothing. Why do you ask?