Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

"By their archives shall ye know them: An approach to Canada's Conservative copyright law, Bill C-61."

This started with the idea that our community radio station might present a brief to Parliament on Bill C-61. I think what I am working on here is not so much a brief as a manifesto; not a plea, but a protocol that allows us as much participation as we can afford; at the end, not a black list, but a list for private use only. -jlt

The new Conservatives have turned copyright into an issue about money and corporate survival. We want to survive too, and money is important to us. But our business models (and organizational models) come from the present century and look to the future. Money isn't our only--or even primary--issue. The corporations whose survival C-61 attempts to guarantee are aggregations of companies, cartels, and business that were born in the Twentieth Century or before.

We want to get our messages out. Information is important to us for democracy. It's also important for our health and well-being, for security, for good planning and development, for survival, for all the reasons that culture and civilization are important--pleasure, love, empathy, respect for nature and so forth. Those things collectively, and many of them individually, are more important than making a profit. When it comes to the real, but unspoken, “right” to make obscene “big league” profits, no reasonable comparison is possible.

My basic model is that everyone has a piece of the puzzle.

I don't want to litigate against someone who “steals” what I think is “my” piece of the puzzle. Of course, if it really is my piece, I want some acknowledgement. I want credit to be given where it is due. As a researcher, it is useful to me to know where information comes from.

I am more interested in that—i.e., that credit be given where credit is due, that my contribution be represented accurately and fairly and in context and not distorted from its true meaning--than I am in money. I would like to be paid, but I am actively hostile to being misrepresented or robbed.

I am more interested in truth than money. That is a personal predisposition, but I know that I am not alone in it. The truth is common property. It is a great collective project. It cannot be done alone. It has no value to individuals isolated from one another.

It might be useful to ennumerate the ills that come from the pretense that one “owns” the truth.

In order to get a complete picture, we need the small piece of the truth that Associated Press or Disney Studios provides. And we need some cash ourselves. The internet has shown us that the pieces of the puzzle from these sources are highly biased, often contrary to the truth, tied as they are to economic activity and to government and corporate offices as sources of information and even imagery.

Still, their contribution is part of the whole picture (including social pathology and the breakdown that we have seen recently) and should not be left out just because they are trying to gouge us for services that we provide for free.

It's generally possible to identify these legacy organizations by their archives. They are the ones in the biggest hurry to charge for reading an article. On their websites, an article is free for a week or two; after that, you have to pay to read more than a few words. It's interesting to note that the archives of the CBC, the BBC, and other truly public broadcasters, are free--apparently in perpetuity.

Many times I add value to what I put up on the World Report blog by providing links that are routinely omitted (largely for reasons associated with a misguided notion about competition) by retro organizations like NYT, Globe & Mail, National Post, and AP.

The organizations supporting this legislation are generally trying to preserve a 20th Century hegemony that doesn't really belong to the traditional past and isn't part of the future either.

I think the best approach may be to provide government subsidies to Hollywood, the corporate book publishers and news organizations, big record labels, etc. so that they can make their archives available for free. That would cost us less and provide greater good than trying to pretend that these organizations are serving our interests when they attempt to turn our neighbours—and eventually us—into criminals while we preserve their right to make obscene profits. In the end it is not in our interest to enforce the proposed Stalinesque Nazification of truth proposed by this law (C-61).

I am a bookbinder by trade and an English teacher by profession. I learned from my father to stick my nose in a book and to smell deeply of its aromatic essence while I am still in the bookshop. I love books--so much that I worked at less than the minimum wage for a Vancouver company that was at the time one of the largest publishers of poetry in Canada. Book publishing will never be the same again. But it can be something that continues to nourish us.

Many artists would rather their work be taken and circulated than see it languish on a library shelf after it has been duly paid for. Mostly those are the young ones.

The number of writers, musicians, graphic artists, dancers, actors and so on who achieve celebrity status or even make bus fare from their work is small compared to the number who write, sing, dance and draw—not only for pleasure or relief but also for the enlightenment, pleasure and the general welfare of their families and communities.

The Africans say it takes a village to raise a child. To that we might add that it takes a hundred children or more who sing to produce a world-class singer; a hundred villages of dancers to make one choreographer.

The copyrights Bill C-61aims to protect are the rights of those who have come late to the party and have come to but a few. They offer a little into a social process to which many others have also “added value” and have made numerous timely and persistent contributions.

Bill C-61 aims to protect the rights of those at the very top of a huge pyramid at the expense of the pyramid as a whole, the entire supportive structure of the creative process—whether that be directed at technical innovation or traditional western concepts of culture or broader applications of creative thought in education, conflict resolution, design and general wellness.

I have worked in the bottom levels of that pyramid all my life. My father was a journalist with some talent and a great love of poetry. He brought young poets to our home and debated with them about love and language and the terrible politics of actually having something to say. Like many of his generation, he was hauled before Joseph McCarthy's tyrannical Unamerican Activities Committee, so he knew whereof he spoke. Many young writers appreciated, and I fancy learned, from the opportunity to share an evening with someone who understood their travails and could speak to them as an equal.

My mother, like so many Southern women, painted and played the piano. She fed dinner to the young scribblers my father brought home. She warned me against the pretense of calling myself an “artist.” That, she said, was something other people might say about you but that we must never say about ourselves. The commodification of art as intellectual property turns that notion on its head. I want to come back to that in a minute.

For my own part, I worked for years at the intake level in the education of writers whether they were headed in an academic direction or a technical or traditional creative (or poetic) one. By now I have lived in the Kootenays for long enough to see what a difference it makes when a true “scene” begins to develop. That has been especially evident here as the Selkirk College Professional Music Program has drawn people to the community who have filled gaps that were present when we were just a small town whose music was primarily a leisure activity.

What we need from the government is something that fosters a rich harmony among a diverse plurality of styles and aspirations. It may be, as has been argued elsewhere, that some things are best fostered by keeping out of them. That probably goes too far in the other direction from the proposed law. But it's appropriate to point out that even industrial spokespeople are defending Bill C-61 by arguing that in most cases they don't intend to implement it. That's not a good sign, nor is it reassuring. If the law is there, some day someone will come along and use it to its full extent—maybe worse.

The term “intellectual property” indicates the commodification of something that once was part of the blessing that we inherited from some time or place or being or quality of the universe beyond ourselves—like air or water, like land or language or culture or sustenance.

These corporations that want to build a fence around certain patches of language or the creative work of select creative “properties” and “talents” have done little when it comes to the social processes entailed in building a scene or a culture in which the traveling Basho is welcomed into the monastery, the singer of tales is feasted for his trouble, or the deformed fool is welcomed into court for his insight into the pretensions of his “betters.”

As I write this, I am well aware that these traditional examples are all men. Were my mother's meals for our visiting poets a species of intellectual property? They deserved to be. They had a cash value, but that had nothing whatever to do with why she continued to create them. And the same must be said for her music, her paintings, her crafts, her endless knitting. Without these and like contributions from many generations of women for whom such activities were a badge of civilization and culture which provided the support—the warmth, the tenderness, and the toys on which that huge pyramid of the creative human scene inevitably rests; without them, nothing at all would have been accomplished. Nothing CanWest Global or BCE can inspire the Conservatives to do in Parliament will change that.

I don't think we should plead with these people to spare us or to grant us a little space to operate. We should approach them the way we would approach a madman about to slaughter the golden goose--someone whose suicidal folly we are trying to prevent. They are dying anyway, creatures from the century before, born, in fact, several centuries ago if we are talking about journalism, more than that if about books. Music comes from the dawn of humanoid biology.

We have good reasons for wanting to keep them alive the way we maintain opera companies and ballets, symphony orchestras and vast national libraries.

By the same token, we need to limit the damage they do on the way down. We need to build institutions—archives appropriate to the form—like those opera companies, symphony orchestras and so forth--that honour the contributions they have made and continue to make.

We need to keep in mind that we support them; it is us they come from, and not the other way around.

I think we are playing for time. More and more indy material is available; more and more Creative Commons and GNU licenses mean that as a radio station we can do and be what we really want--mainly with and for like minded people and institutions of which there are many.

Maybe we should think about a “don't play” list of those organizations (copyright owners) most toxic to our interests. Microsoft and Apple would be high on my list. Ideally, we would like to broadcast from a conversation to which all are invited. That is the part of what we do that is “bringing the world to our community.” But some, like Associated Press, have such extraordinary delusions about the value of their own particular “value added” contributions that we may be better off simply to exclude them from the public part of our work.

Jim Terral
Nelson, BC Canada
July 3, 2008

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