clap clap blog: we have moved

Thursday, April 08, 2004
Reading this Salon article on the problems of modern US copyright law, I had a kind of counterrevolutionary thought.

It is simply not true that the policies currently being pursued suppress, as the author says, "the right to be inspired." The whole point of inspiration is that it's a semi-involuntary, instantaneous act. You can't possibly stop it through legal means. (Medical or scientific, sure, but we're not exactly at this point yet.) People can be and are inspired by "illegal art" or things that they've obtained through technically illegal means. There's no limit on inspiration, nor is there any current set of regulations that require you to pay a licensing fee to your inspirations. (Unfortunately for a lot of old, poor artists.) The things you use as material, sometimes, but never really inspiration.

I think we need to keep in mind here that what's being prohibited is not production, but distribution. Realistically and mostly legally speaking, no one's going to come into your bedroom and stop you from sampling a song or pasting in a piece of art or doing whatever it is you feel like doing, as long as you have the physical, technial ability. (And in that regard, I don't really think I need to start in on the list of work-arounds people have come up with, and the interesting artistic results those have fostered, do I?) What's happened here is that because of the internet, distribution is now nearly effortless, requiring a remarkably minimal investment of material, capital, and energy. And so these new regulations have sprung up, in no small part, because a lot of the things that are now being regulated were things that were simply impossible to monitor before: record labels would have loved to stop used records from being sold, and occasionally did, but now the technologies of distribution have made it such that they can forbid it more easily, just as it's become more easy for us to distribute it. In many ways, it's simply been an escalation of the firepower on both sides without necessarily effecting a major change in the outcome. (Indeed, if anything, it's skewed on the side of creation.)

So what I'm saying is that this sort of thing would have a lot more teeth were there not so many ways to get around it right now; we all know that there are a ton of ways to hear outlawed creations (the Grey Album etc.) no matter what the law says. Thus, the problem is not that these works are being created that no one can experience--it's that not as many people can experience it, and right now (although not usually) I don't really think that this smaller-scale problem is worth the breathless rhetoric being routinely applied to it. It won't change the fact that some teenager in Kansas, say, now has just as much chance to read about obscure Belgian techno, say, as anyone else, and that simply wasn't true 15 years ago. So what's the problem?

Of course, the objection is also made that the tragedy is not that things are getting worse, but that we have the opportunity to make things so much better, and we're squandering that. And I think that might be true.

Incidentally, I don't think you can really call the Casey Jones-to-Mickey Mouse process described midway through the article "anarchic," i.e. free of hierarchy, since after all it was the particular presence of structured organizations that allowed Disney to see Steamboat Bill (I assume Keaton didn't screen it for him in his living room) in the first place, and then to allow other people to see Disney's creation. Most of the time, culture isn't really anarchic; I think it's more useful to call it "social," or, if you want, "decentralized." But I think "anarchic" carries with it a whole host of other associations (communitarianism, anti-statism, etc.) which I don't think really apply here. But maybe I should read Vaidhyanathan's whole book.