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Copyright and its discontents

Lance Gallop | Wednesday, May 3, 2006

I am rather embarrassed to admit it, but there is almost nothing in the world that I love so much as words. In the art and science of writing, when everything falls into place there can be found fulfillment, spirituality, self-actualization and truth. It is a light that comes and goes – because I am as adept at writing garbage as anyone. But when words willingly flow I wonder whether or not humans themselves are just living words, and I think I understand what Genesis means when it says that the universe was spoken into being.

We are born to be creators – to shape the world and to call into being unimagined ideas. To be human is to be a creator, and vice-versa. It is for this reason that I, and many others, enshrine the freedom of expression above all other essential forms of good. After all, if you take away any other freedom it destroys a person’s dignity or potential for fulfillment, but to take away the freedom to create is to crush a person’s essential nature.

If you can understand the way that I feel about words – though perhaps in your particular case you understand through art, music or science – then you should have no trouble understanding my attitudes toward copyright in general. It does not take more than a touch of classical libertarianism to smell something rotten about the current copyright regime. The truth is, international copyright law is so staggeringly broken that I only have space here to address a single aspect that I find most troubling.

For the duration of a copyright, typically more than a century, it is forbidden by law for anyone to create and disseminate any work which is in any way derived from existing copyrighted material, without regard to the social value of such a derivative work. Only parody – which is very narrowly defined – is exempt. Contrary to popular belief satire is not protected in any way. Some may remember “The Wind Done Gone,” and the JibJab.com political parody of “This Land is My Land,” both of which nearly were consigned to oblivion by the estates of their creators.

It is troubling to think that there may exist many more works, and potential works, of great merit that will never see the light of day because of this “right” to censor another’s work that has been granted to authors in the name of protection.

Copyright, as written in the Constitution, is a limited restriction with a specific purpose. It was created as a temporary protection to encourage authors to contribute their works to society. Today copyright has mutated into a form of intellectual entitlement. The term “intellectual property,” a form of Orwellian doublespeak, is used to promote the notion that ideas can have owners and that these owners control both what they have made and anything similar created by anyone else.

You are a criminal if you adapt an author’s ideas in your own way and share them with your friends. You are a felon if you explore an author’s plots in forms that she did not envision, or if you pen unauthorized satire or social commentary in her words. Copyright has granted authors exclusive and unquestioned authority to determine what their works will mean for us, and to censor any form of reinterpretation that they do not approve of. We cannot make anything else of these ideas until copyright holders (and probably we as well) are long dead.

This situation is patently unconstitutional, because it amounts to the federal government granting a writ authorizing a person to censor another’s ideas and the right to enforce a single interpretation of a creative work – “Gone with the Wind” versus the “Wind Done Gone” – as the only acceptable version. This has a long-term damaging impact on the natural spread and reinterpretation of ideas that is essential for the functioning of a free society, and it depresses the expression of the essential nature of humans as creators.

Fortunately there are ways to fight this problem and to rise up as supporters of the free exchange of ideas. If you visit my Web site, you will find a copy of this article and many others that I have written. All of these have been perpetually released under a Creative Commons License. This means that you can copy them, you can distribute them, you can perform them and you can create new works based upon them. You may use them to mock me, to praise me, to promote things that I agree with or to promote things for which I have the deepest disgust. The freedom is yours.

I strongly encourage other columnists for The Observer, other writers and indeed this entire newspaper to release their copyrights under similar terms. Freedom of expression and of adaptation is a human right, a civic virtue and the mark of a great university. We must commit ourselves to the preservation of this virtue.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He can be contacted at comments@tidewaterblues.com. Please visit his Creative Commons archive at www.tidewaterblues.com

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.