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The Pizzo Files

Jesse Walker: Copyright or Culture Land-Grab?

by Stephen Pizzo
05/05/2000

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The first thing I do when I start a new writing project is to search the works of other writers already published on the subject. Every good writer does the same thing. In fact, it's the way all art and culture evolves and grows -- by building on the creativity of those who went before. Each of us pushes the artistic/cultural boundary out, holding it in place until the next artist or writer comes along to push it into entirely new territory.

In fact, the law insists on it, insists that creative works be just that -- essentially new. Simply ripping off the work product of another artist is illegal. The invention of movable type -- and with it the ability to mass-produce copies of printed works -- necessitated the first copyright law in 1709. The reasoning was, and remains, sound: if the original work of artists cannot be protected, at least long enough for them to make a living from it, then few people would take the time to produce difficult and important works of literature and art.

As time and technologies progressed, copyright laws progressively tightened in response. Each new technological leap presented those with vested interests in intellectual properties with a fresh challenge to what they saw as their rights. By the dawn of the 20th century it became less about the rights of starving artists and much more about the rights of large publishing concerns. In the US, copyright periods were steadily lengthened from their original 14 years. Each year of extended protection increased the value of publishers' inventories since no one else could reproduce those works while they were protected. As the copyright noose tightens, writers and artists worry that almost anything they produce could be challenged by someone who thinks they see a piece of work they own reflected in the new work -- which of course is unavoidable.

Jesse Walker, an associate editor for Reason Magazine, wrote a scathing criticism of the trend toward expanded copyright laws. Jesse sat down with us for an interview in April.

Walker's Key Points

Real Audio Quick Clips

Jesse Walker on...

listen Napster & the Music Industry
listen The Film Industry
listen Shortening Copyrights
listen The Right Industry Response
listen The Anti-Copyright Arms Race

Walker on Napster and the music industry:

In the case of MP3 and Napster, what you have is essentially an arms race, and it's moving beyond the law. Even if Napster gets shut down, there is this new program, Gnutella. It's freeware. It's a distributed network the same way the Internet is, so there isn't a central server that can be shut down and there isn't a company that you can sue. So it seems as though the main force that's working against large companies using the courts and the law is simply the ability of people to come up with clever new technologies that allow them to violate copyrights anyway. It's almost as if we are moving into this lawless zone where it's like, who can afford what lawsuits versus what clever hacker can come up with a neat program. It's very fun to watch, but it's not the way these issues have traditionally been solved in the past.

Walker on the film industry:

A related issue is some of the more obscure films out there for which the Congress just extended copyright protection by 20 years. Twenty years from now, a lot of these will deteriorate so they can't be seen. With these out-of-print works, especially, which nobody who owns the copyright expects to make a profit from, clearly there's something wrong with the copyright rules if it can't be easy for someone else to come along and legally release them.

Walker on shortening copyrights:

I would be delighted to have the original constitutional system of 14 years with an option to renew for 14 more years, and having in the case of something done by the author as opposed to by a company and at their death, not having it extend past their lifetime. But even more important than that, I think that we need to be expanding the area that's protected by fair use instead of constricting it.

Walker on the right industry response:

I think sometimes the only way you can get to a position of strength is ... well, in the case of Napster, if the recording industry says, "You know, it's obvious we're not going to be able to fight this. We should try to figure out a way to release music on this format that's reasonably priced and make a profit off of it that way." One reason why you have so much piracy in that realm is because the recording industry was so slow to embrace MP3, and now it's coming around and biting them.

Walker on the anti-copyright arms race as a prod for change:

So again I'm just having to put my faith in this arms race, which is a horrible thing to say, in hopes that when it becomes harder and harder to enforce intellectual property rules, people will just make the natural triage and say, "We're going to go after the important cases and leave aside these parodies and fan films and things which aren't interfering, which if anything are getting people more interested in our product."

Continue to next page for full transcript.

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