It is admittedly difficult, maybe even a bit ridiculous, to think about a policy matter as arcane as copyright law when the headline story of the moment is an attempted coup d’etat—let alone one fomented by the President of the United States and endorsed by some Members of Congress. But against the backdrop of existential threat from within, I am also reminded why I believe a subject like copyright is so important: first, because it exemplifies the hard truth that our democracy is built on fragile principles requiring careful and persistent stewardship; and second, because it expresses the almost quixotic hope among the founders that the nation might eventually be great enough to produce art and culture. In a different post, I cited this quote from a letter written in May of 1780 by John Adams to Abigail:
I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.
Although Adams could not possibly envision the modern, technological media that would emerge in the late nineteenth century, his allusion to such delicate arts expresses that aspiration toward an American greatness that could one day be a nation strong enough to indulge in creativity and invention. Yorktown was still a year and half into the war’s uncertain future when Adams wrote those words to his wife. Thirty-four years later, during the war that some historians call the “second American revolution,” an adversary occupied a congressional chamber in the U.S. Capitol, which was still newly under construction. On August 24, 1814, Admiral Cockburn of the Royal Navy sat down in the Speaker’s chair and in a mocking, parliamentary tone asked his troops, “Gentlemen, the question is, Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned? All in favor of burning it will say Aye!”
This anecdote appears in the Handbook of the New Library of Congress, published in 1897 to commemorate the grand opening of the beautiful Beaux Arts building—today the Jefferson Building—situated just east of the Capitol with its copper dome topped by the flame of liberty. Although the story has a whiff of mythologizing in it, the account of Cockburn’s farcical, legislative theater as a prelude to lighting up the Capitol is at least a metaphorically fair reflection of England’s disdain for the American experiment when they burned down icons that they noted had been so hypocritically built with slave labor.
The reason that story was published in the Handbook of the New Library is that the precursor to the Library of Congress was burned by the British as the library within Congress—a narrow skylit atrium of hardwood and wrought iron, originally located along the west wall we see behind the stage where presidents are inaugurated. The new library, as envisioned by Lincoln’s appointed Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Spofford, was not only meant to be a house for the people, but a repository for the latent genius of the people by collecting copies of works deposited for copyright registration. As cited in the book I published in November:
Immediately following passage of the 1870 Copyright Act, the library received just over 5,700 deposits, or roughly one work for every 6,600 citizens; by the peak year (for the century) of 1893, the library received just over 48,000 deposits, or roughly one work for every 1,360 citizens. So while the population nearly doubled in this same period (from about 38 million to about 75 million), creative output increased roughly fivefold.
To put it mildly, the goons who ransacked the Capitol have no better understanding of what the leaders of the Revolution hoped for America than they were clear about what they might ultimately achieve with their grotesque misadventure on the Mall. By the end of the nation’s first century, Adams’s modest hope that the United States would be strong enough to be creative was beginning to be realized. And one terrible irony of the present is that in so many areas, real American greatness—its capacity to invent, to create, and to reinvent itself—was alive and well the day Donald Trump told the nation that all he could see was “carnage.”
It is no coincidence that the corporations most responsible for the aggressive assault on creators’ rights are the same companies now finally understood to have played a substantial role in cultivating that alternate reality in which too many citizens now operate. Mischaracterizing copyrights as barriers to access has been a key ingredient in Silicon Valley’s magic elixir they sold to the world as the “free flow of information.” And for years, they simply refused to acknowledge that truly dangerous disinformation flows just as freely and twice as quickly.
I jumped into this debate almost a decade ago because I believe that an empowered population of authors and creators is essential for a thriving democracy. In 2013, I wrote, “To put it whimsically, a great bulwark against tyranny would be a class of unusually wealthy poets.” Having now witnessed a closer brush with tyranny than many would have thought possible in the United States, I am more committed than ever to that particular kind of whimsy.
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