Blind Man with a Pistol

The Blog Driver Waltz

The Associated Press has had it with bloggers. Or at least, they are expressing concern that bloggers might be playing too fast and loose with “fair use” copyright, and frequently cite and repost AP stories without paying for it. “As content creators, we firmly believe that everything we create, from video footage all the way down to a structured headline, is creative content that has value,” Jim Kennedy, vice president and strategy director of The A.P, says in the NYT article linked to above.

Fair enough. The excessive reproduction of articles and editorials wholesale is intellectual theft, and essentially amounts to mindless proliferation of information without critical engagement. The best quality of blogging is its capacity for pluralistic, independent analysis of political and cultural events, not simply blogging for the sake of it (of course, it’s funny how close those two approaches come sometimes). The A.P. has a right to protect itself and its journalists, and they do seem to be approaching it in a thoughtful and considered way—they plan to meet with members of trade group Media Bloggers Association, among others.

But in their lawsuit against the Drudge Retort—which spawned this whole mess and has yet to be withdrawn—they target a post that quoted eighteen words from an A.P. article plus a 32-word direct quote. Here is the passage in question:

Hillary Rodham Clinton says she expects her marathon Democratic race against Barack Obama to be resolved next week, as superdelegates decide who is the stronger candidate in the fall. “I think that after the final primaries, people are going to start making up their minds,” she said. “I think that is the natural progression that one would expect.”

Not exactly scintillating, Watergate-type stuff. The original post, however, now removed, incited 108 comments. How, exactly, can the A.P. pursue this lawsuit with a straight face?

What’s more, as City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis points out, it’s a bit rich for The Associated Press to pretend such self-righteousness when their raison d’être is the homogenization of original, diverse journalism into the A.P. style and brand.

This complaint comes from an organization that leaches off original reporting and kills links and credit to the source of that journalism. Yes, it has a right to reproduce reporting from member news organizations. But as I point out here, the AP is hurting original reporting by not crediting and linking to the journalism at its source. We should be operating under an ethic of the link to original reporting; this is an ethic that the AP systematically violates.

In fact, as Jarvis points out elsewhere, The A.P. made a deal with Google that effaces the work of the original journalist and makes Google the effective content producer. The deal allows the Internet software behemoth to display new stories not from the source, but from the wire. Perhaps, then, this latest attempt to short-circuit unique, independent and multivocal analysis and comment is part and parcel of the overarching strategy of the Associated Press after all. No sourcing unless it’s to us, no writing unless it’s bland, undistinguished and branded.

The good news is that whatever the A.P. tries to do, I have a suspicion that bloggers won’t hold much truck with it. Stand up for fair use, Associated Press. It is the only principled position you’ve got.

Hat-tip to skdadl at Bread n’ Roses.

Virtual Victory

First: Go read Michael Geist on why Jim Prentice’s digital rights copyright bill is a betrayal.

Then: register your disapproval here and join the facebook group here.

What is most interesting about the mobilized outrage protests against Bill C-61 (what Geist cynically refers to as the Canadian version of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the less strict American digital rights bill that the U.S. defeated) is that they have proven the viability of online, virtual protests. It appears to be a very real possibility that the growing facebook group, the online petition, and the automatically generated emails to MPs will change this bill. Even if the bill passes (with the Liberal Party of Canada’s usual strategy of sputtering anger followed by abstention) the online protest has educated thousands while inspiring political action and demand for change.

When politically motivated online protests emerged a few years ago, they were dismissed as a watered-down version of the marches and sit-ins of the 1960s. This is possibly true, but it is also true that contemporary politics are a watered-down version of their postwar counterparts. In fact, it was easy to be cynical about current marches against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Slavoj Žižek is fond of pointing out, most protests nowadays are virtual and toothless.

The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’

Žižek is the comedic provocateur of philosophy, so perhaps it’s best to take him skeptically. But it is difficult to rid ourselves of the defeatism and pessimism that came with the failure of the anti-war protests to actually stop the war. And while it appears to me that there is a significant disparity of degree between protesting the slaughter of hundreds of thousands and digital copyright, the chance for success for the (actually) virtual protest is greater than the (virtually) actual one.

It is possible that this virtual action is finding traction because it occurs in the medium it affects. But more than this, I think it demonstrates that there is no virtual anymore.  Or, rather, it’s all virtual. After all, isn’t the intention of the digital lock provisions in C-61 in part, to make the virtual physical property? To deny digital proliferation online and shore up its singularity and uniqueness? I’ve always been suspicious of appeals to the “real world” (perhaps, as a graduate student of literature, that’s a matter of psychological denial) and this latest online protest seems to confirm those suspicions. Virtual political action isn’t opposed to the real world, it is the real world.

The Tears of J.K. Rowling

“I really don’t want to cry,” came the impassioned plea from J.K. Rowling. “Because I’m British.” J.K. Rowling testified Monday in the copyright case Rowling vs. RDR Books. RDR Books wants to publish the Harry Potter Lexicon, the work of American librarian Steve Vander Ark (who claims to have read the series more than 50 times). The Lexicon, originally a website that once received a fansite award from Rowling herself, organizes and alphabetizes any nugget of information contained in the world of Harry Potter. Rowling calls the book “wholesale theft of seventeen years of hard work.” RDR Books and their counsel, Anthony Falzone of the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, call it fair use.

Rowling’s testimony is curious. One wonders why she needs testify in a copyright case at all; she had certainly never done it before, even in defending against plagiarism charges levied at her. But what strikes me most about her testimony is the emotional, personal tenor of her testimony.

Those characters meant so much to me over such a long period of time. It’s very difficult for someone who is not a writer to understand what it means to create something. It’s the closest thing to having a child.Those characters saved me. Not just in a material sense – though they did do that. There was a time when they saved my sanity.

As Ed Pilkington wonders in the Guardian article linked to above, why has a copyright case testimony turned into a treatise on a writer’s relationship to her art? Why the threatened tears, the appeal to pathos?

As mentioned above, Rowling and Warner Bros. had no complaint when the Lexicon existed only as a website. It was only after Vander Ark wanted to make a profit off his work that the plaintiffs pursued legal action. If these characters “meant so much” to Rowling, why didn’t she protect them earlier instead of rewarding the site for its dedication and utility? (Incidentally, according to Falzone, Rowling employed the site as a a fact-checking aid while writing later volumes in the series.) Could it be because as long as the Lexicon was offered free, it simply expanded her fanbase and burrowed the roots of Hogwarts deeper into the public consciousness?

Make no mistake: the lines Rowling is trying to buttress are financial ones, not boundaries of artistic integrity. According to Tim Wu (a former assistant of Judge Richard Posner), “Rowling is overstepping her bounds. She has confused the adaptations of a work, which she does own, with discussion of her work, which she doesn’t.” Rowling is shoring up her ability to profit at the expense of artistic integrity, not to preserve it. Or, as Lawrence Lessig puts it, copyright protection “was meant to foster creativity, not to stifle it.”

Perhaps, in her tearful reminiscing of her impoverished writer days, Rowling should consider letting Harry grow up. After seven barnburner novels and seven more blockbuster movies, perhaps it’s time for Harry to saddle his Quiddich broom and make his own way in the world.