Wednesday, January 18, 2012

If PIPA Passes

That's a literary (and geographical) allusion, but good luck finding out to what. After all, Wikipedia is shut down for the day. In English, that is; the Latin and Finnish sites are still working, for what that's worth to the morally-challenged students at third-tier universities all over America.

The bigger concerns are the laws to which this blackout has drawn fresh attention. We're not entirely up to speed on this, so we won't say much. Here's a quick rundown from Gizmodo, and a better one from Wired. Here's a very watchable 13-minute rant by TED's Clay Shirky.

We will say this: America's intellectual property laws are already strict enough to stifle innovation. Copyright and patent laws have been strengthened and, in particular, their terms have been lengthened. Rather than benefiting the actual scientists or artists who make new things, the laws now provide a startling benefit to corporations -- and almost in perpetuity.

These laws do stimulate one kind of innovation, but it's a bad one. They have created the entire industry of patent warehousing, in which big companies buy up patents for things they didn't invent and have never produced, for the sole purpose of suing some other companies that eventually invent and build something similar. Suing them, and then essentially stealing their profits. The website describes it as "a protection racket in which an entire industry has to decide whether or not to pay a licensing fee up front or fight off litigation in court."

Add to this the unnecessarily high cost of pharmaceuticals, which contributes (a little) to the outrageous surge in health-care costs, and you begin to see the creepy moral questions which hunker around the margins of IP law.

But back up. So far as we can tell, the laws presently before Congress have nothing to do with patents, and therefore with drugs. They are designed to protect two industries: recording and film.

Protecting these industries is like declaring dinosaurs an endangered species. Except that the dinosaurs were bloodthirsty killers, not cocaine-addled moral degenerates. It took a planet-sized meteor to kill the dinosaurs; the recording industry has been kept alive by Congressional favoritism since the 1990s.

Recording, in particular, was a perverse blip, which for the first time in history allowed musicians to become wealthy for something besides writing and performing music; it made the sleazy middlemen even wealthier, and they built that wealth up by deceiving and defrauding the actual artists. Record producers were parasites, living off people with actual talent and depending completely upon the existence of the copy-proof vinyl LP. Protecting these guys is an idea so bad it makes bailing out Detroit look like probity personified. Their industry is dying; it deserves to die; let it die.

The irony here is that, although we at the Egg lack even the minimal tech savvy required to file-share or otherwise download protected content, we live in a country where it is rampant. Where the customary fashion accessory for Eastern Europeans was once an anarchist newspaper tucked under one's overcoat, it is now a terrabyte external drive containing ten movies, a season or two of HBO, and more music than J.S. Bach listened to in his entire lifetime.

This sounds like an argument for stronger laws, right? After all, these people are pirates. But do you know why they are pirates? Because nobody will sell the stuff to them. Try to use Netflix, Hulu, any of the legitimate vendors, and they send you a polite note saying "We are sorry, but we are unable to distribute content to your country." PBS Kids won't let Preschooler A. watch clips from his favorite programs about talking teddy bears.

Now, not everybody we know would pay for the stuff, even if they got the chance. But some of us would, and the media companies would make a few bucks they aren't making now. And they wouldn't lose a cent.

Or, to paraphrase our friends at the NRA: When it becomes a crime to download content, only criminals will download content.


mark said...

Don't worry. I already sent a note to congress telling them not to do it.

Pastor Joelle said...

You really need to disabuse yourself of the conceit that only students at lesser places of higher learning plagiarize.

Father Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's more of a trope than anything else.

Sadly, I know all too well that students at better schools cheat too -- someday, I'll write up a classmate's sad story of sex and political skullduggery in which I myself played a small supporting part.

BUT I doubt that kids at a higher-end schools are likely to cut-n-paste from the likes of Wikipedia. The rich ones can pay somebody to write them their B- papers, and the poor ones only got there because they're smart enough to hide their tracks better.

Anonymous said...

There are dozens of companies that will sell not only Bachelor-level course papers but hire someone to write your Master's thesis for you. "Guaranteed untraceable or double your money back". The humanities, including "Divinity" are particularly well supplied with options for this.

Father Anonymous said...

As ... I ... just ... said: Yes, I know.

However -- and maybe I'm wrong, but this is what I like to believe -- the odds of being caught and punished, meaning expelled, are still higher at a better school. That is, or anyway should be, one of the definitions of "better."

Of course, Martin Luther King plagiarized parts of his dissertation, and there have been persistent questions about the attribution of quotes in JFK's Harvard thesis, and they're still national heroes. So maybe I'm missing something.

Pastor Joelle said...

I think it can be more complicated than just straight copying. Can you copy right ideas and phrases? Is there a a milieu where everyone is kind of saying the same thing and people like MLK jr are just better at putting it together in a time and a place where people are ready to hear it?

Oh and I've heard you can even pay people to take a class for you.

Father Anonymous said...

It's definitely more complicated than a simple cut-n-paste (although those are shockingly common). When a politician's speech repeats a phrase Churchill used in the 1940s, is it intellectual dishonesty, purposeful homage, or just an accident?

At the opposite extreme, I suppose, there is what Harold Bloom calls the "anxiety of influence" -- the complicated relationship of an artist or intellectual to his or her predecessors. Nobody would accuse "Tintern Abbey" of plagiarizing "The Lost Village" -- they're utterly different works. But they draw on a common inspiration: "Hey, look at the wreckage!"

And the standards vary: the law holds up one standard, the academy another, journalism and professional writing still others.

Legally, for example, ideas aren't subject to copyright, but the form in which they are expressed may be. On the other hand, "fair use" doctrine permits sharing of phrases (or other forms of expression). But even "fair use" under the law, if it's done without any attribution, may still be a serious breach of academic standards -- certainly enough to get a professor canned.

Not to mention that the ethical standards vary a great deal from one culture to another. Japan, I am told, thinks about these things in a way that is extremely different from ours.

Anonymous said...

Lots of people wrote "Letters of So-and-So" in the Middle Ages and had no problems passing them off as other peoples' work; they thought it would make their own thoughts better accepted.
As you said, different cultures have different views on "authentic" and "original".

Father Anonymous said...

That's an extremely interesting point. Ancient and medieval pseudepigrapha are the the mirror image of plagiarism: instead of claiming somebody else's words as your own, you put somebody else's name on your words.

To moderns, this seems like an outright lie, an effort to use another person's prestige -- St. Paul or Dionysius the Areopagite, maybe -- to promote your own ideas, which might have been different. Some scholars interpret it less darkly, as an effort to claim a place in the "school" or tradition of a better-known writer.

Either way, it's a great example of just how differently some cultures have regarded concepts of authorship, originality and attribution.