The Humbug of Copyright

A couple of days ago, I discovered that ¿Cuánto te Asusta el Caos?: Política, Religión y Filosofía en la obra de Philip K. Dick is available in a new digital edition with a new cover. I’m happy to see it (though no one told me about it), and hope there will also be a new print edition sometime soon. After all, it’s my dissertation translated into Spanish.

The story of how it got translated and published a dozen years ago is recounted in a chapter of mine in Cultures of Copyright edited by Danielle DeVoss and Martine Rife. I’m excerpting it here, for I am more and more concerned with what has happened over the last few years with Intellectual Property, itself an inappropriate designation for something that should not be considered property at all—at least, not as equivalent to physical property. After all, even the Constitution sees it otherwise, allowing Congress to set terms of copyright “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Physical property has no such limitations.

Over the years, Congress has taken that clause and has run with it, expanding the limits of copyright protection again and again right up until 1998.

Our “culture of copyright,” today, is a complete mess. What happened to my dissertation is particularly trivial, amusing and flattering. In other situations, though, IP conflicts and misunderstandings can be devastating. Copyright restrictions have become a serious drag on creativity and on the sharing of knowledge. No longer does copyright promote scientific and artistic progress. In fact, it stifles it.

Seeing the new version of “my” book (it has my name on it, at least), brought all of this to mind beneath my chuckle. Here’s the history, extracted from that book chapter:

Although I knew nothing about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that had been signed into law by President Clinton…, I was vaguely aware that I did have certain rights over my own work, but I believed (falsely) that I still had to invoke them prior to their taking effect. To me, copyrighting something was a proactive choice, as once it really had been. I didn’t realize that, now, the fact of publication invoked copyright automatically. I thought that doing nothing let greater rights migrate into the public domain, and I liked that idea.

In terms of my dissertation, well, I felt that it did not belong simply to me, anyway. I had earned my degree at a land-grant (public) university, after all, and felt that I had a bit of an obligation to share what the public, in part, had paid for.

In terms of copyright and IP, I was incredibly naïve….

When my dissertation chapters appeared on the web site [I had offered it to], I did recognize that it was possible for anyone to download them or print them. That was fine…. What I really wanted was for people to read what I had written….

About a year after the linked essays… appeared…, I got an email from someone in Spain, asking if one of those chapters could be translated, to appear in a journal there as a stand-alone piece…. I immediately agreed….

Two years later, I got an[other] email…. When I opened it, I saw that… [the writer] was asking me if I knew that my entire dissertation had been translated into Spanish and published… as a book. Surprised, I did a quick search…. I was delighted. I printed out the cover image shown on the web and posted it….

This was before I had decided on an academic career. I can’t believe how innocent I was, but I still believe I did the right thing and reacted in the best way.

Why do we have to hold things so tightly?

Maybe I am still naïve and innocent, though I have now been publishing regularly for a decade. Maybe I do believe it is time for the Disney Corporation to give up rights to Mickey Mouse, ceding him to the public domain where he belongs instead of lobbying from another extension of copyright law, as will certainly happen sometime in the next decade. Ultimately, it will be even better for Disney. It certainly was for me.

But I doubt I will ever convince the bean counters of that.

I doubt even Marley’s ghost could.

7 thoughts on “The Humbug of Copyright

  1. Certainly some instances of copyright infringement are trivial. But not all. I do believe intellectual property is real property, and I also agree with the widely professed rabbinical interpretation on this issue.

    The following was provided by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel:

    “… the issue of ge’nei’vat da’at, which in Hebrew means, “stealing one’s mind,” which can easily apply to all forms of misrepresentation, taking credit for someone’s work. Anytime a person deliberately tries to create a mistaken assumption in the minds of others, this is considered a major breach of Jewish ethics and law. Arguably,ge’nei’vat da’at goes far beyond just lying. It is also a clear violation against bearing false witness—a law that is considered one of the most important of the Ten Commandments.”

    “The literal meaning of ge’nei’vat da’at in Hebrew is theft of one’s mind, thoughts, wisdom, or knowledge, i.e., fooling someone and thereby causing him or her to have a mistaken assumption, belief, and/or impression. Thus, the term is used in Jewish law to indicate deception, cheating, creating a false impression, and acquiring undeserved goodwill. Ge’nei’vat da’at goes beyond lying. Deliberately creating false impressions about one’s behavior is also subsumed in this prohibition—whether in words or in deeds.”

    I can tell you from personal experience that the theft of the mind is also a theft of the soul. And I see nothing trivial in that.

    • All of what we do, then, is that sort of theft. Every word we speak, every thought we have.

      Oh, and you may believe what you want, but the Constitution, the basis of our laws, disagrees. Read what it says once more.

      • I’m not so sure about that. Citations and authorship are important. Copying work without proper credit, or worse still- taking someone’s novel ideas and using them as your own in the published literature is a big deal.

        I agree we must distinguish between honest mistakes and intentional theft. When it becomes an intentional theft, then we must respond accordingly.

        • Our conception of authorship is heavily influenced by the thinking of the Romantics, especially Wordsworth. It is neither necessary nor intrinsic.

          Our concern for citation can become obsessive. What, for example, is a “novel” idea? Aren’t all of our ideas derivative?

          What needs citation? The limitations we impose are problematic and arbitrary (just try to pin down a definition of ‘fair use’).

          I’m not talking about theft or plagiarism, but the misuse of the concepts of ownership and property to limit what others can do and to increase one’s own profit–something that often happens far after the original “thinker” has passed from the scene.

          What I care about, in the case of my book published in Spain, is that I get credit for the work I’ve done. Beyond that, well, I doubt the book makes much money. So, in a limited sense, I agree. But you are diverting the conversation from my original topic, which has nothing to do with theft.

  2. I understand your point. There are related issues of potential profitability. There have been a litany of copyrighted works transcribed to other languages and then sold abroad- without any agreements with the original authors or publishers. And then the proceeds go to someone not involved in the original work. I know the laws are burdensome, and often seem like over-kill. But, we also have the option of not enforcing them. That is, you do not have to register a complaint if you consider it no big deal.

  3. The Authors’ Alliance is a group that seeks to promote the interests of authors who write mainly to be read (and not as a major source of income, like most academic authors). They seek to promote open access within a context of an appropriate appreciation of copyright. Here is their mission statement:

    “Authors Alliance promotes authorship for the public good by supporting authors who write to be read. We embrace the unprecedented potential digital networks have for the creation and distribution of knowledge and culture. We represent the interests of authors who want to harness this potential to share their creations more broadly in order to serve the public good.

    “Unfortunately, authors face many barriers that prevent the full realization of this potential to enhance public access to knowledge and creativity. Authors who are eager to share their existing works may discover that those works are out of print, un-digitized, and subject to copyrights signed away long before the digital age. Authors who are eager to share new works may feel torn between publication outlets that maximize public access and others that restrict access but provide important value in terms of peer review, prestige, or monetary reward. Authors may also struggle to understand how to navigate fair use and the rights clearance process in order to lawfully build on existing works.

    “The mission of Authors Alliance is to further the public interest in facilitating widespread access to works of authorship by assisting and representing authors who want to disseminate knowledge and products of the imagination broadly. We provide information and tools designed to help authors better understand and manage key legal, technological, and institutional aspects of authorship in the digital age. We are also a voice for authors in discussions about public and institutional policies that might promote or inhibit the broad dissemination they seek.”

    Their website is here:

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