Zeds Library News – 1 Aug 2010

I’m trying something new this weekend – each week I’m going to post a recap of pertinent news in librarianship.  It will only be a short list of links with one or two lines of editorial attached, but it should be enough to accomplish my two goals:

  1. To make better use of my feed reader. I’ve grown tired of the wayward reading and bookmarking that happens with RSS feeds.  Hopefully, I can increase my ‘uptake’ from site feeds, on a more-regular basis, once I start typing up a few thoughts on the posts I come across.
  2. To share what I’m reading with others. Like most of us out there, I like blogging and I like reading blogs.  But sometimes I don’t think we’re as connected to one another as we let on.  Even with all the social media we use to create communities, I often feel like we’re all stranded on our own desert islands; every now and again something washes up on our shore that had washed up on someone else’s shore previously.  Maybe by posting a weekly “best of library science blogs” post, I’ll be able to bring more people together.  We’ll see if it sticks.

So here we are: a Zeds Library News recap for Aug 1, 2010!

  • Wired magazine reports on Penguin Books’s 75th Birthday. Of note: Penguin’s success was built on the idea of making books of all sorts – fiction, literature, histories – affordable to all people. Penguin Books “democratized literacy by making good books as accessible as the daily newspaper.”
  • LISNews aggregates the press release that kept us buzzing late this week: III/SkyRiver’s antitrust suit against OCLC.  Monopoly? Non-for-profit consortium?  A Systems Godzilla?  You Decide.  (K.G. Schneider offers a good POV, noting that OCLC may be a behemoth, but at least “OCLC is our behemoth – yours and mine . . . [rather than a] for-profit behemoth in it for itself.”)
  • The Library of Congress tells us it’s okay to jailbreak our iPhones.  The Chronicle reports that the The Copyright Office has completed its triennial review (what a word..) of what should have DMCA exemptions and has determined that wireless phones may be jailbreaked, and DVDs may finally be lawfully be copied for educational, noncommercial, or documentary use.  Read the entire LOC press release here.
  • The summer political season in Canada has been more than just barbeques and rodeos.  The Conservative government’s decision to throw away the mandatory long-form census has put the entire nation up in arms, and our Chief Statistician resigned when gov’t leaders suggested he approved such a measure. In the mean time, the National Statistical Council of Canada, a government oversight body of sorts, has been trying to reach a compromise before it’s too late.  Tracey Lauriault at datalibre.ca has done some digging for everyone else so we can look behind the curtain at the NSCC.
  • Does anyone still use Ask.com?  CNN Money reports that the search engine is rolling out an “Ask the Community” feature where your questions are answered by real live human beings.  Kind of like a library reference desk, eh?   (Thanks to Points of Reference for connecting the dots on this one.)

{n.b.  It would be incredibly wrong of me not link to my friend, Jhameia, whose regular rounds of links in a different field inspired me to give it a shot for LIS.]

Readings: Lessig, Remix (2008) – Media Matters

Lawrence Lessig, <i>Remix</i>
Lawrence Lessig, Remix

I’m reading Lawrence Lessig‘s Remix for the first time and it’s a thrill.  Frankly, it makes me want to pursue doctoral work in information culture and the information society – a thought I’ve flirted with for a number of years.

Something that struck me about fifty pages into Remix is Lessig’s contemplation on the nature of fair use and citation with books versus the nature of copyright infringement with other media.  Lessig notes that in literature, academics, and to a certain extent, law, people are expected to borrow and acknowledge other people’s works; the citation serves to create a thread that connect similar ideas to one another.  The example he uses is the production of an English essay on Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, where:

citation is required.  But the cite is always sufficient payment.  And no one who writes for a living actually believes that any permission beyond that simple payment should ever be required.  Had Ben [Lessig’s friend, a former English major and now an attorney] written the estate of Ernest Hemingway to ask for permission to quote For Whom the Bell Tolls in his college essays, lawyers at the estate would have been annoyed more than anything else.  What weirdo, they would have wondered, thinks you need permission to quote in an essay?

Lessig, L. (2008). Remix.  New York: Penguin.  p. 53

But on the following page, Lessig asks us to consider how the act of citing the text of For Whom the Bell Tolls differs from citing, quoting, or referring to Sam Wood’s filmed adaptation of Hemingway’s book: in today’s DMCA culture, permission would have to be sought from a film company for anyone to “use” a clip.  This entire passage struck me because just last week I had written commentary about labor rights in a personal blog after reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  I included in the post a quotation from the book – Tom’s famous “I’ll be everywhere” speech, followed by YouTube clips to the Ford filmed adaptation, and to Bruce Springsteen‘s and Woody Guthrie‘s songs about Steinbeck’s character, Tom Joad.  I knew I was likely violating some sort of DMCA regulation even though my post could probably be considered Fair Use (it certainly would be considered Fair Dealing in Canada).  I was aware of this while I wrote a proper citation for each work.  And I was aware of the fact I might be DMCA’ed not only for the film clip (a “remix” Ford probably secured rights to), but also for the Guthrie and Springsteen clips (where it’s questionble if either performer ever asked Steinbeck or his estate for permission to use the text).  In short, I can cite Steinbeck’s book with ease, but my ability to use these clips might be trumped by corporate rights-holders through the DMCA, even though my reasons for doing so – academic, critical, and commentary – would be considered fair use, even though the content in these clips is not necessarily “original”, and perhaps most important, even though the artists who produced this now-protect content did not not always seek permission to create their own adaptations, derivations, or remixes.

Lawrence Lessig, a different sort of culture warrior
Lawrence Lessig, a different sort of culture warrior

Lessig’s friend’s essay on Hemingway and my compilation of clips inspired by Steinbeck are great examples of what Lessig would call “remix culture”.  The legal manouvres made by the producers of these clips to ensure copyright protection, meanwhile, are great examples of everything that’s wrong with copyright law today.  Fair Use deems it okay to cite from a text, but the MPAA and the RIAA, through the DMCA, would trump Fair Use and demand that I take down these YouTube clips because I never secured permission – even though they are excerpts of cultural products that are remixes or adaptations of a wholy different and antecent cultural product.  The MPAA and the RIAA might claim that I am infringing on their copyright to Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad” even though Springsteen was inspired by (or to use the rhetoric of the day: pirated) the works of another.

Why is our relationship with books difference than with all other media?  By studying Lessig’s quotation above, we can see that some of it lies in two areas, value and purpose, and they are closely related to one another:

  • On Value – Lessig frames this as “payment”.  The citation his friend Ben makes to Hemingway’s text is not only an acknowledgement but a transaction of cultural or intellectual value.  Ben saw enough importance in Hemingway’s work to tell his readers that his own ideas were inspired by it.  It also creates a cultural and informational chain that links the consumers of Ben’s work to Hemingway’s book, which in this case is the “original” text.  But as Lessig later writes, since the value transaction Ben makes is not financial, his fair use of the work, his essay, and the citation is generally a non-issue to DMCA rights-holders.
  • On Purpose – Lessig makes clear in this paragraph that no lawyer would care about a silly permission when Ben wants to cite Hemingway’s work for an essay.  Things are different, however, when the object of the remix / cultural adaption / reproduction has discernable commercial purposes.  In my Steinbeck example, John Ford ostensibly secured the rights to adapting The Grapes of Wrath because his art’s mode of transmission (i.e., film) created a financial model that would benefit many others.  Perhaps Bruce Springsteen should have sought permission because his “remix” of elements of Grapes, “The Ghost of Tom Joad“, might have commercial value (see above), but I imagine The Boss didn’t bother because his song is written and performed in a folk tradition that often eschews the merits of capitalism.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me state that Lessig isn’t foolish enough to propose that the production of art should be divorced from the economic engines that drive it.  After all, there are fundamental differences between the economic value of an undergraduate essay or scholarly article and that of a motion picture or song. Lessig’s anecdote reminds me, however, that copyright law and copyright enforcement as it exists today not only protects the interests of the copyright holder (instead of the creator). And furthermore, copyright law is the de facto piece of legislation that regulates society’s relationship with culture (Lessig, 2008).  Something is wrong when I can’t talk online about how a book, its filmed adaptation, and songs derived from its main character, affect me without first securing the permission of rightsholders, especially since the Internet has become the dominant form of communication in western society.  There is something wrong because regardless of the cultural work’s mode of transmission:

  1. my consumption of it affects me so that my discussion is not wholly about the cultural product but about how I have interpreted the cultural product, and,
  2. any ecomomic model that demands constant permission from consumers to so much as talk about a product is rotten at the core.

Imagine having to call Atlanta every time you want to talk about Coca-Cola, Santa Claus, Polar Bears, and the business’s beautifully produced Christmas commercials.  That is not a recipe to control the the Coca-Cola brand and product – it’s a method to destroy any good will the company has with its consumers.  Although my first point is more important to me, I honestly have never been able to figure out why members of the MPAA or RIAA would carry on their ridiculous DMCA business on account of the second point, which is directly related to their ability to remain a going concern.  Creating barriers between the consumer’s ability to interact with your product is a sure-fire way to drive the consumer away from what you’ve got to sell.

For whatever reason, I can quote from Steinbeck’s book without any threat of litigation, but the moment I quote visually from Ford’s adaptation, I better be prepared to deal with a DMCA violation warning.  This may be one of the reasons why Lessig wants the world to open its eyes to the control that culture producers have over the consumer’s ability to interact with a cultural product.  It’s moved well beyond the point of restricting some people (i.e., culture pirates) from intentionally stealing cultural products.  At this point it about controlling the way that all consumers actually consume a work, right down to watching it, reading it, listening to it, and then talking about it. It’s no longer about the regulation, protection and control of the cultural product.  Now, it’s an unfair regulation of our lives.