Freedom, culture, copyright and the internet

A lot of sites and people we admire are staging a protest on the internet today, a “blackout,” to register their unhappiness with two bills making their way through Congress these days, though much of the focus is on the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House. If we had the technical wherewithal to take down our site in a dramatic way today and then get it back up and running smoothly tomorrow, we might have joined it. We think that SOPA is potentially a bad bill, and we think the symbolism of it is terrible.

Among the sites closed for business is Wikipedia, though it has one page available for viewing, the page on SOPA. It’s in that formal, just-the-facts Wikipedia-speak, and we recommend giving it a look, if you’re unclear about the bill’s provisions.

We believe that SOPA doesn’t do nearly enough to protect entirely legitimate sites, mostly because it tilts the balance of power toward large media companies with cadres of lawyers, ready to find sympathetic judges who could put those legitimate sites out of business. Now, it’s a little laughable to imagine that someone would want to put ArtsWatch out of business, but at some point a corporation might. Let’s face it: Nearly all of the state’s major media organizations are owned by large conglomerates headquartered elsewhere, and even those that are locally owned have frequently displayed a certain ferocity in their competitions with others. If any of them ever thought of ArtsWatch as a competitor in any way… Well, we don’t know. That’s what’s wrong with the bill’s particulars, among other things.

As a symbol, it’s even worse. Big media companies and their agents in the government have tried various ways to “limit the damage” of the internet on their profits, usually without considering that maybe their products are a major part of their problems. They have become used to gigantic profits, and of course, they have sought to protect them. Basically, they want to “fence in” the commons that is the internet, a region of communication that doesn’t require gigantic capital investment to get started. ArtsWatch, for example, had very, very little, when we started up in July. Once companies and various governments start regulating the commons, it quickly stops being a commons at all.

In principle, we oppose the piracy of copyrighted material. But we also believe that copyrights are held too tightly and for far too long. Our system doesn’t consider the common good, only the good of the copyright holder. It also doesn’t reflect the “social” nature of the production of movies, music, books, etc., how much any given artist owes the network of other artists of her or his own time, let alone the long line of artists who came before. The essay I write today should be protected for a period of time from the uses, especially commercial uses, of others, if I want it to be. But my descendants shouldn’t be able to lock it up for long periods of time after I’m dead, which is how things work now. My work is contingent, and at some point, I must accept that contingency by relinquishing my rights to it. We could go into how the economics of this aren’t nearly so dire as they sound on the face of it, but that’s another essay. My thinking on this has been shaped by Lawrence Lessig, and I recommend reading his “Free Culture” (download it free), even if you think you disagree. He explains it much better than I.

We are going to see many more efforts to destroy the internet commons. I think the organizers of the blackout are entirely right to make a major stink about SOPA, because we need to convince citizens that it’s something that they should value and keep safe. I think by and large they do. Whether that’s enough to keep the commons safe from the predations of corporations and their agents in Congress over time is entirely uncertain. Every day we see how money and power undermine the democracy we purport to practice.

At the same time, we should be working much harder to change underlying copyright laws to begin with — in a way we are fighting for the common good too far down the stream.

So, due to technical difficulties, ArtsWatch will be up and running today. On the other hand, we hope you’ll stop a moment and resolve to keep this space safe and open.

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