Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Glee" and Intelectual Property Attitudes

I've spent a lot of time thinking about how the attitudes of the public intersect with the current regime of copyright law. It seems like a lot of people acknowledge that copying CDs and downloading illegal mp3s is a morally questionable (or even morally wrong) activity. But most of these same people engage regularly in the activity. There's a gulf between the sort of logico-moral approach and the actual activity.

But that's just one illustration of the kinds of thoughts-action duality copyright law can create. In the realm of remixing, reposting and reusing cultural property, the dichotomy isn't really centered in the public. It manifests itself in the activities of large media companies. The most common form of the dichotomy is a large music company playing into the public's love of remix by selling interesting remixes but then cracking down litigiously on those that create unauthorized remixes.

I guess it wouldn't be too challenging to explain this away; the music companies, of course, own the materials they are remixing, and a lay-remixer does not, so the company's remix is legally allowed. But the bottom line is that the anti-remix stance of big media companies is not consistent with their exploitation of the fact that remix sells.

I think the best example, though, is one that was recently explained at the blog Balkinization. The article outlines how the popular television show Glee uses the idea of remix culture to show a group of kids bonding over shared cultural experiences and musical expression, essentially by performing "remixes."* But the show doesn't once mention that if someone were to engage in these activities in the real world, they'd be slapped with giant fines, most likely including some fines from 20th Century Fox, the producers of the show. The media industry is putting out a show glamorizing remixing with one hand, and slapping remixers with the other.

So my take is that the real problem lies with this big media industry; it's an industry that made most of its living in a traditional anti-remix culture that is now trying to sell to a modern pro-remix culture. It leads to inconsistency in both their behavior and in the laws they lobby for, thus creating a big cultural rift that will take major copyright overhauls to heal.

It takes a special kind of hypocrisy to appreciate the market for, and cultural appreciation of, something that you are fighting to destroy. It takes a special kind of day-job book-burner to write novels by night. The big media industry is adept at this kind of hypocrisy, and U.S. copyright law makes it possible.**


* I'd just like to clarify that "remixing" isn't only the activity of slicing up music and recombining it to make new songs. It's also changing the context of some bit of media to comment on it, or recreating that bit of media slightly differently to change its effect, etc. Lawrence Lessig talks a lot about the various ways of doing "remixing" and the cultural implications in his book, Remix.

** This is, of course, an oversimplification. The article I linked to has a much more sophisticated discussion of the role of U.S. copyright law in this discussion, specifically in creating the balance between promoting cultural development and rewarding past creators.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

TED and moot and 4chan

Above is an embedded video from the really great site, TED.com, which collects talks from their conferences on big ideas and fascinating topics. The one I've pinpointed here is the one buy a guy named Christopher Poole, known on the Internet as "moot." He's the notorious founder of 4chan, the cesspool that fuels the complex memetics of the Internet and creates the dominant cultural stance on what the Internet finds "funny."

There's no denying the power that comes with a position as a pretty prominent taste-maker on the Internet. But Poole recognizes that this isn't a power he has. It's a social power he's unleashed. or maybe concentrated. He knows that he's just some guy, and the real hilarious and terrible and important and damaging work that 4chan makes possible is actually self-organizing, perpetrated by a band of no-names that wander onto his web page and use his site as the structure on which they build their antisocial social network.

I've written about 4chan and "anonymous" before (once to extol the virtues of the subgroup "Anonymous," and once to discuss what anonymity does to social organization and norms) . But I wanted to respond briefly to some things in this TED talk.

First of all, I think that Poole does a good job side-stepping the questions about accountability for terrible things found on his site. He essentially says that, for all of the child pornography and violent images and racism that 4chan can be littered with, it's clear that there is a certain social value to allowing people to express their true selves anonymously and find a community that appreciates the same things as them.

But I also think that Poole doesn't really need to sidestep the issue; he can confront it head-on. The horrible things that characterize 4chan are not really there because people want child pornography or violence or racism. They are there as a sort of rebellion against the restraints of the Internet's legal structure.

If you outlaw something on the Internet, sure, it'll move into the sort of "black servers" on the Internet, the spaces where regulation is extremely difficult or impossible. But unlike "black markets" in real space, the actual focus doesn't seem to be the provision of these illicit materials; it seems to be demonstrating that no matter how harshly you outlaw things, smart and dedicated people that don't like your laws will find a way to rebel. Essentially, it's a crude, simplistic version of the Boston Tea Party.

Though I don't want to sound like I am justifying this terrible behavior. I just think that painting 4chan as a haven for depraved people and criminals is counter-productive; it's more like a haven for anti-establishment types and anti-authority teenagers. Treating anti-authority tendencies requires a very different approach than treating anti-social criminality and depravity. Poole's best response to allegations of harboring illegal activity and depravity is to remind people that the pursuit of liberty, not pornography, is the driving force here.

I also wanted to briefly say that the presenter could have done a better job with not sounding like he's patronizing Poole. This guy understands the importance of anonymity and ideological freedom better than almost any other TED speaker, and to ask simple questions about pornography and hate-speech is to miss the point of what Poole's site has actually accomplished.

All that said, the video is a good watch as an overview of what 4chan is all about and how it has impacted the discussion of Internet life and how the Internet works. I'll hopefully have more to say about 4chan soon. But remember, no one speaks for 4chan, so let's just all try to speak coherently and intelligently and non-condescendingly about it.