Want to Protect Speech? Strengthen Copyright

Following up on yesterday’s brief reference to Jaron Lanier’s editorial in the New York Times, we find the same theme echoed in this coverage by Emma Green at The Atlantic.  Green writes about an event at which authors E.L. Doctorow and David Simon also raised concerns regarding the disconnect between overreacting to stories about government surveillance while remaining unconcerned with Google’s collection and exploitation of data we volunteer as users of the Internet.  The title of the article, predicated on a quote from Simon, invokes Orwell, as topics of this nature invariably do; and I while I think it takes much more than technological means to produce the “Orwellian nightmare,” the exaggeration is still instructive.

Although she doesn’t really preface quite what she means by “principles,” Green concludes with an editorial statement that “principles may serve as better starting points than solutions” when it comes to addressing the matter of privacy in our digitally connected lives.  Certainly a lack of privacy is one feature of an Orwell-like dystopia, but privacy alone, as is often interpreted through a technological bias, translates into anonymity as a solution; and I would argue that voluntarily turning ourselves into faceless avatars would be a very effective way to hasten a post-human society orbiting some centralized, fascistic body.  On the subject of principles, however, if the Orwellian nightmare is what we fear, then there is one thing we can do in the coming year to hedge against it:  let’s strengthen copyright law against threats from internet companies like Google.

Artists, journalists, and cultural leaders whose faces and voices are known to us, who speak in the sunlight, and who author works and sign their names to those works have been, and continue to be, a counterforce against all mechanisms of tyranny. And in a free society with a market economy, we cannot separate the social value of those voices from their civil right to derive economic value by their labors.   While it is necessary that speech for all is an absolute right, the boundaries and power of speech are not always extended by mass reaction through social media (i.e. what’s trending).  The overreaction to the Snowden leaks attended by simultaneous blindness to Google’s use of data makes a good example. Speech is not inherently made more powerful every time a troll acts like a jackass, or even necessarily every time millions of us write rational critiques of the world on Facebook and Twitter.  Speech is made more powerful by those who use it powerfully, and what the Internet surely proves is that this can be anyone from a poet laureate to a six-year-old child you would never have known without a thing called YouTube.  Still, if we want to avoid sliding over the cliff into the Orwellian abyss, then an empowered population of authors is essential, and like it or not, that means protecting the economic power of authors.

Yes, the industries built on copyright often serve up a lot of drivel that can hardly be said to live up to the platitudes stated above.  I would not suggest, for instance, that Miley’s twerking or the subsequent circus of response to it do much of anything in particular for speech; but then, this is a chicken and egg issue, isn’t it?  Who buys tickets to the circus and makes a non-story a story?  YouTube doesn’t force twenty-plus-million people to click on the video to see what all the fuss is about.  We get caught up in the frenzy, and certain entities, including what used to be television news, must monetize the frenzy or go out of business. On this matter, Christopher Hedges’s editorial from June 2010, describes the Coliseum-like atmosphere in which Americans are too distracted by shiny objects to deal with the reality that our economy my be rotting from within.  Meanwhile, the most powerful oligarchs of this era, to paraphrase Andrew Orlowski, have built themselves luxury life rafts in order to transcend the bleak future their distracting technologies might help make manifest for the rest of us.

If we want to strengthen free speech; if we want a hedge against invasions of civil liberty; if we want to speak truth to power, then we must continue to empower those who speak the truth and do so openly and professionally. To put it whimsically, a great bulwark against tyranny would be a class of unusually wealthy poets.  As Congress resumes the process of copyright review in 2014, we should seek not to weaken these laws on an assumption of their irrelevance in the digital age, but to strengthen them on the grounds that they are more important than ever.

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