Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Intellectual property

I'm always happy to read an intelligent essay about the arts, literary or otherwise, and if it's one written by Mark Helprin, I'm a pig in clover. I particularly love the last sentence of his recent essay about copyright, the constitution, and the intentions of the framers of such, regarding intellectual property. Authors and artists. Doing "...the work of the spirit and the mind." Why do they (and their heirs) get the legal short end of the stick for this most important work? His writing always makes me think furiously and feel deeply. Every time I read his work I find myself praying that he lives a very, very long life, and that I do, too, so I can read whatever he writes. Forever. Can that be arranged?

Interesting in that there is currently much debate on whether once something is released to the public whether there is ANY right to control. The position put forward in the essay smacks too much of conservative rhetoric which on the surface seems to play to our sense of justice but in reality would primarily benefit drug companies etc.

In the case historical cited, the primary issue at the time was that of invention versus copyright of literary or artistic works. In fact, as you know, literary copyright was fragile at best, even later in the 19th century.

In the case of invention, we give tax breaks for investment in research, etc. so it is reasonable that we limit the time a product can be restricted. Likewise, in the case of invention, it builds on previous publicly accessible efforts and additionally it is often the case that others are very close to similar findings. Therefore other researchers are prohibited from benefiting from their research simply due to a time-based legal construct.

The open source software community has been fighting this war for some time. Even a limited copyright is counterproductive. I fall on almost the exact opposite side on this issue. A piece of art has value intrinsically, without protection from the courts. Similarly there are means to compensate for music that is shared freely. In the case of literature the objection from someone like JK Rowling would be understandable, but for most authors there is little economic benefit from extending copyright.

Hi Wayne,

my knowledge of the law is tenuous. I thought of a dozen possible responses to what you say, and knowing that in most debates I tend to fold like a wet paper bag, I could just thank god that people have opinions, and leave it at that.

However (isn't there always a *however*), I must say that I think Mark Helprin was arguing for the protection of the rights of artists and their works, not for more benefits for corporations, which is why I linked to the article in the first place. Of course there is only one J.K. Rowling. But often (even especially!) tiny amounts of money make significant differences to people who are responding to the creative imperative (and their starving heirs, if their parents spent all their time writing novels or painting), and that tiny income from extended copyright could mean the difference, literally, between being able to do their work or not. Because of having to buy food or pay rent instead of, say, buying paint or guitar strings.

I don't mean to sound bitter, I hope I don't, but I always come back to thinking that in any great civilization or culture or era, what is remembered and valued from that place and time, what remains, are its arts - literary, visual, musical, etc. Arts created by individual artists. Usually with little renumeration or hope of success or fame (read Van Gogh's letters and see exactly what I'm talking about). So when do we truly start valuing and protecting artists? Is there anything more valuable than individual human expression? A body/mind/spirit doing what it was meant to do in the world? I think about this all the time, as a painter and writer. In the end, at the scale I operate on, and to remain centered, I do what I do to please myself only. Any other thoughts of renumeration or compensation are merely chasing shadows. Creative people know that doing the work at hand is the important thing.

I'd be interested to know, are you an artist? Can't help but wonder. Thanks for your interesting comments.

Now I feel all sweaty and anxious. Man, I never could have been a lawyer.
Nope. Not a lawyer. I once considered going to law school but became a math geek instead, although I am now doing graduate work in American history.

I don't really disagree with much of what you say, yet the protection of "intellectual property" is something that will present issues like I raise. The entire idea 0f "intellectual property" is problematic. At what point did it become property?

Van Gogh was impoverished, yet he created great works of art that we still view with wonder. All without ANY legal protection as to property. Hence I would argue that providing additional protection might actually be counterproductive!

Authors hope for some renumeration, and limited title laws can help with that, but as a person who does not believe inheritance to be ethical or reasonable, I don't pity those who do not benefit from their predecessors accumulation!

BTW - You pushed back just fine! No wimping out or anything. ;-)
More thoughtful disagreement and intelligent discourse. I feel very civilized...

It's tough to describe that feeling of putting one's heart and soul into one's work. That's property, to me (a "proprietary" feeling). Poor Van Gogh. I think he could have lived a lot longer, and hence painted a lot more, if he'd had even a pittance to live on. Now his paintings sell for fifty million dollars each. My sense of justice is overwhelmingly outraged.

I do tend to agree with you, though, when it comes to inheritance in general - I think it was one of the Vanderbilt grandkids who was disinherited and wrote a sensational book in the 1940s about this very thing. He thought that inherited wealth was the kiss of death for all ambition - he'd seen it firsthand. Still, there's inheritance at that scale (why not live for pleasure rather than buckling down to one's life's work), then there's subsistence-level income (to pay the rent so one can write two more chapters of one's novel instead of being consumed by worry). Hypothetical situations, but you get my drift.

Thanks again for the thoughtful exchange.
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