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Archive for February, 2008

Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity
Kembrew McLeod. Doubleday, 2005.

The subtitle “overzealous copyright bozos and other enemies of creativity“ aptly describes this missive against current trends in intellectual property law that media prankster Kembrew McLeod has launched with this thought-provoking and often humorous book.

A central premise of McLeod’s book is that an erosion of the creative commons by continually expanding copyright and patent legislation, rather than encouraging artistic and scientific innovation, has actually had the opposite effect. Moreover, the encroachment of private interests on the public domain via this expanding legislation has made it prohibitively expensive to perform scientific research and cheapened our culture.

Copyright and patent laws were legislative tools originally conceived to foster creativity. The laws allowed the creators of cultural and technological artifacts to exclusive profits for a fixed period of time. Afterwards, the works would enter the public domain, where they could be built upon by the next generation.

McLeod describes how folk musician and political activist Woody Guthrie freely borrowed melodies and lyrics from existing folk and show tunes for his compositions. Many of these tunes were only a few years old at the time Guthrie incorporated them into his music, yet this was not seen as theft. Artists of his era implicitly recognized the concept of the information commons – that they could build upon existing melodies to create something novel. In fact, this methodology goes back to nineteenth century classical music, where composers like Mahler and Dvorak used folk melodies as a basis for many of their symphonic compositions.

Woody Guthrie has been dead for 40 years, and many of his songs are well over 60 years old. Ironically, the current holders of his copyright have been very litigious in their pursuance of any perceived transgression against their “right” to his music. They fail to recognize how the genesis of these songs relied on a freely available pool of existing melodies, rhythms, and lyrics – a creative commons – that they in turn are slowly eroding. The result is that current copyright legislation no longer encourages creativity, but destroys it.

McLeod looks at the effects this erosion of the public sphere in a wide range of areas: sampling and collage in music, trademarks in biotechnology, the use of lawsuits to curtail fair use, and the copyright of common sayings.

There are long-reaching ramifications, including the curtailing of free speech and democratic institutions. If the Watergate scandal occurred this century, could it have been made public, given that documentation produced by outsourced private entities is not freely available? How could the results of voting machines, produced by and managed by private corporations, be independently verified if they are under private control? These and many other troubling issues are raised in this incisive analysis of unchecked greed.

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