Monday, May 18, 2009

Lessig : Helprin :: remix : extended terms of copyright (that's right, I just got all sorts of SAT on you)

So this guy Mark Helprin writes this article for the New York Times that argues for an extension of copyright restrictions past the current 70 years. He also has somewhat of a different view on what it means to have work copyrighted, and brings up interesting points on the difference between an idea and a work of art. He talks about the article, and his book Digital Barbarism in an episode of All Things Considered. Lawrence Lessig then responds to Mark Helprin's argument by making a page on his wiki so that his followers can work together to create a response, and goes on All Things Considered to clearly state why what Helprin is trying to say is met with so much grief by so many individuals (you can find this on the same page as the ATC episode with Helprin under the link "Lawrence Lessig responds to Mark Helprin's argument").

We were asked to respond to this for a final in my Media Industry Perspectives class. Below is my response and which side of the argument I advocate.
I completely agree that the current state of copyright law not only restricts creativity, but also, in line with Lessig’s statements made on NPR’s All Things Considered, that copyright as an overall system has failed to fulfill its intended results in the 21st century digital world. In his interview with Jackie Lyden on NPR, Lessig informs listeners that when Google set out to digitize 18 million books, they found that 75% of these books were in an uncertain status of copyright. They were out of print, and yet whether or not they were still under copyright protection or were in fact the stuff of public domain was indeterminate. This proves that the current state of copyright that is intended to recognize the original author is failing to do its most basic and simple job properly. The laws surrounding copyright and ownership are so muddy that Lessig has based his career around making these laws and regulations simpler to understand, and wishes to make negotiations flexible and comprehensible for the average layman who has his work protected under copyright.

In (not direct) opposition to Lawrence Lessig’s work and his books The Future of Ideas and Remix, author Mark Helprin argues in his article from the New York Times and his book Digital Barbarism that Congress should continue to extend copyright terms from the existing 70 years to, in his words, “as far as it can throw”. He believes that the children and grandchildren who inherit the copyright and the money involved in the royalties made from that copyright of a predecessor’s work should be seen as equivalent to the generations who inherit the property rights to a family mill. Lessig refutes this position, stating that, obviously, these two pieces of property are very different, and that Helprin’s argument is inherently faulty for being based on these grounds. Helprin’s article received over half a million negative comments from the online community, mostly from those who in theory align with Lessig and his ideas on public domain, intellectual property, and what it means to create and share in a digital world. Along with the aforementioned NPR appearance, Lessig also responded to Helprin’s article by creating a page entitled “Against perpetual copyright” on The Lessig Wiki, a community site intended to discuss ideas, praises and criticism surrounding Lessig’s work.

While Helprin and Lessig are not entirely diametrically opposed (they both do not wish for the current state of peer-to-many free file sharing to continue, for example), they do have many differing opinions on intellectual property rights, the definition of art and creativity in general, and their interpretation of legislation. One of their differences of opinion lies in their individual interpretation of the line in the US Constitution surrounding copyright. This particular line states the length of any given copyright should only exist “for limited Times”. Lessig understands “limited” to mean minimal, and believes that Congress extending the length of protected copyright on a work 11 times in the past 40 years is making a joke of the US Constitution and only serves to put more money in the hands of those who are profiting off of the protection of the work; on the other hand, Helprin takes the term “limited” to be extremely flexible and subjective, and while he has never said that he advocates perpetual copyright, he certainly believes that as long as copyright law is up for renewal and extension, Congress should take advantage of this open interpretation of the Constitution.

Another area where Lessig and Helprin disagree is on the concept of “remixing” existing works into new, appropriated pieces of art. In his interview on NPR, Helprin states that “remix is a nightmare”, and while he probably means this only in relation to legal issues, this statement serves to make Helprin look like a naysayer and a curmudgeon who refuses to accept the evolving states of art and media that come with evolving technologies. Helprin believes that the work one creates is sacred and should not be altered in any way without the original author’s permission. I certainly advocate Lessig’s ideas surrounding the issue, and believe that current copyright laws need to evolve with and not against the current trends in technology and waves of creativity.

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