Saturday, 11 April 2009

Copyright Must Change Watch

As a student of the history of the book, the interaction between technology and social, cultural and economic practices is important to me. This interaction has been the focus of debate about the printing press: Elizabeth Eisenstein argued, in a comprehensive study of the early-modern press, that the press brought not only widespread access to books, but 'fixity', whereby both textual production and meanings were standardised and reproducible. Through the press, Eisenstein argues, readers could expect that the text they were reading in, say, London, was identical to the text being read in Berlin. This was an assurance that could not be expected in the days before the printing press, when manuscripts had to be copied by hand, and were prone to changing through inaccurate scribal work.

This argument, in which technology determined the shape and use of its product, and in turn reshaped European society, has been countered (or, as he argues, supplemented) by Adrian Johns. In the ironically titled, The Nature of the Book, Johns argues that what Eisenstein believes are properties of the printing press were in fact products of the efforts of the community of readers. Credibility and fixity had to be developed around the press by human agents, and didn't spring from the technology itself.

One of the products of this process was the creation of copyright. According to Johns, the reason credibility had to be established around the press, rather than through it, was that it made piracy rife. Piracy in our time (which is the actual subject of this post for those of you who can make it past the long-winded academic intro) is generally thought of as the illegal reproduction of work under copyright, either in part or in whole. It is mostly confined to music and video, and of course since the advent of Napster it is largely a digital practice, although I did manage to pick up a pirated copy of Amartya Sen's The Argumentative Indian when I was in Udaipur in late 2007. Johns, however, argues that in the seventeenth century piracy was a word to describe a range of activities related to the press, which included copying and selling without permission, but also included things like selling work not written by an author under that author's name, or selling the work of one author under another's name. The range of acts that were described of piracy was much broader than these practices, and apparently Johns is working on a book on the history of print piracy at the moment.

Before I move on to the actual subject of this post, I need to mention one other site of historical debate, also based in the seventeenth century. According to German sociologist J├╝rgen Habermas, another of the products of the printing press was the public sphere, a mediated space in which a self-constituted public could debate amongst themselves and criticise their government in a reasoned manner. For Habermas, this space for public debate acted as a check on government, and it arose not only out of the press itself, but from the practice of merchants bringing news from abroad during a period of increasingly long-range travel due to the rise of mercantile capitalism.

Habermas locates the emergence of the public sphere at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and pegs it not only to the press but to the emergence of capitalism. There is reason to be sceptical of his arguments -- on the one hand, there is evidence of a public sphere of sorts existing in the seventeenth century, based not in capital but in religious arguments, and on the other hand it is hard to say that this sphere of reasoned debate ever existed at all once one has read a few early-modern pamphlets, which tended to make scurrilous accusations and ad hominem attacks with satisfying regularity.

All of which is to say that the printing press was not itself an agent, and that copyright is the product of a historical process, and that the sphere in which public argument takes place is also historically contingent and, contra Habermas, has never been untainted by commercial media, nor has it ever been practised in an ideal way by men of reason.

Which brings me to the actual subject of this post. Five months ago, New Zealand blogregator Public Address featured a post regarding copyright, entitled Copyright Must Change. Written by guest poster Matthew Poole, the post recounted a talk at a New Zealand university by copyfight luminary Lawrence Lessig. You can read the post yourself. We have time.

This post was written in the context of an ongoing discussion on Public Address System, Public Address's forum, about the response of the music and other media-owning industries to the challenge of doing business in the digital age. Russell Brown, Public Address's founder, long-time journalist, and one of New Zealand's first columnists to take a serious interest in the Internet in his now-defunct 'Computers' column in the now-defunct and sorely missed New Zealand Listener, has long been a critic of the music industries attempts to strong-arm music fans into buying music rather than pirating it through DRM technology and lawsuits.

Public Address System is, in my opinion, an example of a web community that functions more or less well. Insofar as we can believe in a public sphere, PAS lives up to some of the ideals, most of the time. Its contributors are generally well-informed, and usually treat one another with a degree of respect. Trolling is rare, although it can be spectacular. It gets criticised by the Marxists for being bourgeois, and by the denizens of the likes of the right-wing Kiwiblog
(which I won't link to, because it's not worth your time) as being a bunch of lefties agreeing with each other. There is some truth in those accusations, although as a bourgeois lefty, it doesn't bother me too much.

The Copyright Must Change thread, and indeed any PAS thread on copyright, is a different story, and for one reason. PAS user Robbery disagrees with Russell Brown over copyright, and is not afraid to say so. As can be seen from the first page of the thread, Robbery has a history of disagreeing with the people of PAS on copyright issues, to the point that one regular poster remarks "Here we go again", in anticipation of Robbery's arrival, which doesn't happen until page three or four. Two posts later, another poster declares that he 'is out of this one'. Readers of Just Lost Interest will note that the thread, which is still active, continues for another 78 pages as of today, and is up to 1547 posts.

Those readers will also note that post number 1547 is written by one Simon Grigg, who ruled himself out of the thread on page one. Grigg is a luminary of New Zealand music, who now lives in Bali and travels extensively through Southeast Asia. He owned one of the early independent labels, and has managed or been otherwise involved in some of New Zealand's more successful indie acts, including the Screaming Meemees and OMC. Despite his pseudonym, it was established at one point that Robbery is in fact Rob Mayes, owner of New Zealand indie label Failsafe Records.

There are other players, like Mark Harris, Sacha, Kyle Matthews and Giovanni Tiso. But the heart of the battle is between Grigg and Mayes. Mayes is a copyright absolutist, who thinks that illegal downloading is theft and should be protected against through legislation and DRM, and that unless one has had a great deal of experience in the music or other creative industries, one's opinion is worth little. He also doesn't shy away from a straw man. He makes this argument in the face of others who tend to agree that technological change has outstripped copyright conventions, and that the creative industries 'need to find new ways' of dealing with it. Grigg, for his part, recognises the use of copyright, but consistently argues for a need to face reality and recognise the need for changing business models. He doesn't believe that the industry will deserve to 'go the way of the dinosaur' if it can't reconstruct its practices, but he is generally thoughtful and realistic about the future. He also can handle about two pages of circular arguments, pointless nit-picking, and low-level abuse from Robbery before declaring that he's walking away from the thread, only to come back for another round a few days later.

The real star of the show, and the reason for its tremendous run, is Robbery. I won't attempt to describe Robbery's inimitable style, but I suggest you have a look at his latest coup. First, he describes an event he didn't attend to people who were there, baits them into re-describing it, accuses them of wanting to cover up their bad behaviour, insists that there are only two possible 'sides' one can be on in the debate, claims victim status for being outnumbered, and then, as the estimable Sam F predicts, proceeds to question the credentials of those who attended. This post is a classic. Truly, he is a master of arguing on the Internet.

Other than his inability to get his head around the obvious benefits of setting up with eMusic (is 15 cents a song viable? Is it better than zero cents?), my favourite part of Robbery's multi-faceted approach is his firm belief that copyright is an absolute right, and that any discussion that seeks to address the question of copyright in the digital age is 'against copyright'. Copyright used to last for 20 years beyond the death of the author, and now it lasts for 70? That's progress. Not because it's better per se, but because it was one way in the past, it is another way in the present, therefore the current model is more progressive. Does it matter, as has been repeatedly pointed out to him, that copyright expiration was changed because Mickey Mouse was about to pass into the public domain? Does it hell! There are two directions for Robbery, forwards and backwards. Robbery likes forwards.

So, Copyright Must Change Watch was going to be a daily round-up (on those days when the thread was active) of the arguments, particularly focusing on the fascinating interaction between Simon Grigg and Rob Mayes. As with Scraps in Stacks, I first declared my intentions to start this blog in my Facebook status, to general approval as expressed through the 'like' function. Unlike Scraps in Stacks, I never had any intention of starting this blog, because frankly I have better things to do with my time, so I never even had the opportunity to lose interest.

Update: No sooner had I posted this, than Giovanni linked to it on the Copyright Must Change thread. I think that this must be what they call 'postmodern'.

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