Friday, January 11, 2008

free Cory!

From the slightly-aged news department:

Writer-with-whom-I-often-almost-agree, Cory Doctorow puts artist rights into priority sequence on the way to an Internetty utopia. In an op-ed in Locus magazine, sci-fi kingpin Doctorow decides that freedom of expression is the all-beef patty in the artistic Quarter Pounder (TM).

Oh, that was a mistake -- now I'm picturing Doctorow as a gigantic white-suited Wilson Fisk, battling SpiderMan (TM).

Anyway, here's Doctorow:

Sure, it's fine to talk about the artist's rights to get paid, to control copying, to have their work attributed to them and be fairly edited, but all that stuff is just the appetizer. There's one artist's right that's more important than all the rest combined: the right to free expression. No one gives out awards for writers who bring copyright suits — but we do give out awards to the brave writers who publish in the teeth of censorship and state oppression.

My problem with this argument is that the artist rights I'm familiar with come as a bundle, and as one begins to evaporate, the others become equally endangered. Without the right to get paid, to control copying, to attribution and fair editing, there is little chance of an effective right to free expression -- which is probably why these rights are bundled the way they are as widely accepted principles of copyright.

And before anyone attacks my commitment to free expression, just don't okay.

It's all well and good to celebrate new business models and greater artist leverage through distribution competition, but the casual dismissal of fundamental artist rights as mere "appetizers" is ridiculously naive.

Interesting side-note:

I don't think I've ever seen such clear and unequivocal rebuttal of this the freedom of the Internet trumps all kind of argument as I did in the comments section following Doctorow's Locus article. Innnteresting.

2 comments:

Chris Brand said...

I wish you hadn't said that you weren't going to reply to comments.

I can see that fair editing is important to freedom of expression, but I can picture a world where writers don't have the rights to get paid, to control copying, or to attribution and yet are still able to freely express themselves.

(Obligatory disclaimer - I'm not advocating for such a world).

Hopefully you'll elaborate on this...

Geof said...

I think you miss Cory's central point. He writes, "The majority of this expression is intimate, personal maunderings". This expression is being exercised by unpaid amateurs in their everyday lives, not by artists for pay. There is no connection to their economic rights, as you suggest, because these people aren't exercising those rights.

The problem Cory addresses is that any effective mechanism for preventing piracy online will also inflict great harm on this vast realm of personal expression.

You have stated before that you favor social norms as a solution: people would pay artists because they believe it is the right thing to do. Then there is no need for coercive laws and technologies of censorship. But all the evidence I have seen points the other way: piracy enjoys widespread acceptance among those who came of age online. I was a teaching assistant for a university course that looked at copyright. The question was never asked outright, but I had the strong impression that the majority of the students had no problem with filesharing.

The main debate taking place is not about whether people should be allowed to share material without authorization, or about how to persuade them not to. Instead, the struggle is over how they can be prevented from doing so. The resulting draconian laws and the behavior of media conglomerates do nothing to support your argument for different social norms; on the contrary, they have served to undercut moral claims for the validity of copyright.

So long as the name of the game is guaranteeing that piracy can't happen - with piracy defined broadly to include the everyday social interactions of private individuals - we really are left with a stark choice between policing copyright and permitting free expression. Cory doesn't believe it has to be like this. Neither do I. We can find solutions that benefit professionals while preserving free expression for all of us.