Common Grounds: Coffee Houses & Copyright Review
I am presently ensconced in what I expect will become my new morning writing venue — a local coffee house/bakery located just a few miles from my alma mater, Bard College. Like other establishments of its kind, especially those in proximity to very liberal, liberal-arts colleges, this place is steeped in the atmosphere of social consciousness. All the coffee is fair-trade, as is the chocolate used in the baked goods and confectionaries made on site. Posters adorn the walls advertising the fair-trade collective supported, depicting photos of Latin American and African workers enjoying the fruits of their labor rather than suffering the deprivations of many who harvest or produce the goods we consume.
It’s August now, but the Bard students will be here soon, gathering in ebullient clumps to study and socialize; and regardless of their majors or career goals, anecdotal evidence suggests that their sense of social justice will be an even more prominent component of their life plans than those of my friends and mine when we were here as students. In the 1980s, we were mostly hoping Ronald Reagan wouldn’t start WWIII with nuclear weapons, but today’s digitally connected generation appears anyway to be more instinctively aware of their role as global citizens — that choices made in pampered, western life can directly affect the well being or suffering of individuals halfway around the world. Of course, even this kind of consciousness only goes so far as it is nearly impossible to live in the developed world without inadvertently benefitting from exploitation in the developing world (see your iPhone), but at least the trend toward thinking globally and acting locally is common in the next generation, and I think it’s fair to credit social media as a catalyst in this case.
My new morning haunt is also a venue for local musicians to perform; and near the entrance is a sign reading, “Play what the people like. We own every license there is!” Below this, the BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC logos are displayed. The sign isn’t very prominent, many people won’t even notice it no matter how many times they walk through the door; but it would not be out of place if it were hung next to the posters of thriving coffee, tea, and cocoa harvesters. I’m sure the owner of this shop was simply following the law when he bought the music licenses, but whether he knows it or not, the sign about the music is entirely consistent with the non-exploitative ethos of the business. Despite the raw tonnage of gibberish that has been promulgated on the subject of media piracy as a “new model,” there is not one idea yet proposed that is anything more than a hypocritical contradiction of the same social consciousness that wants to promote and acquire fair-trade goods. So, with regard to media consumption, the next generation has to decide whether or not they can agree that exploitation is universally wrong while recognizing that some of the “innovation” that has been brought to you by Web 2.0 is merely the acceleration and expansion of junk business. Check your SPAM filters.
On August 1, the House Judiciary Committee held its third round of hearings in the process leading up to comprehensive review of copyright law, and the witnesses invited to testify were supposed to offer various points of view on digital-age innovation and, in theory, make a case for why the present copyright system stifles said innovation. The witnesses were as follows:
Ms. Danae Ringleman
Founder and Chief Customer Officer
Mr. Jm Fruchterman
President and CEO
Mr. Nathan Seidle
SparkFun Electronics, Inc.
Mr. Rakesh Agrawal
Founder and CEO
Mr. Van Lindberg
Vice President of Intellectual Property
Rackspace Hosting, Inc.
Each witness represented burgeoning, intriguing, and humanistic business ventures, but not one witness presented a single, declarative statement as to what specific mechanism(s) in the current copyright system act as barriers to innovation. Absent such testimony, and in light of the fact that all of these individuals can boast thriving and legal businesses, one might only conclude that copyright in general must not be the proverbial monkey wrench holding back the future that people keeping saying it is. This might explain why several of the witnesses, when pressed with direct questions from the committee, were quick to change the subject from copyright to patent law. In fact, by my estimate, roughly half the hearing was devoted to discussion of the patent system, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the committee members had to double-check the name at the top of their briefing documents to make sure they were in the right room. We’re used to seeing this in public debate — certain technology interests assailing the principle of intellectual property in general, toggling between copyrights and patents at will — but I was surprised to see it happen in a Congressional hearing and do hope copyright review will become more focused on specifics going forward.
On the other hand, we could streamline the process, if we take a lesson from my new, local coffee house. If the next generation of socially conscious citizens in the developed world simply consumes media the way they consume coffee, tea, and chocolate, we might save ourselves hours of misdirected testimony that is sure to come. If people choose to marginalize media piracy to an exception, we will reduce the vague and vacillating assault on IP as a general concept and open the floor to frank analysis of what does and does not work in these legal systems. Sadly, though, reports like this one by Helienne Lindvall indicating music piracy is most prevalent among the wealthy reveal that privilege too often begets a sense of entitlement that selectively overrides social consciousness. Among the hundreds of Bard students who will soon be tromping through here, most of whom will be art majors, I do wonder how many of their smart phones will be filled with music or filmed entertainment downloaded from torrent sites. Correct this one hypocrisy, and the debate becomes so much simpler.
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