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Mark Helprin on copyright
May 21, 2007 9:29 AM   Subscribe

A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn't Its Copyright? (NYT) In this op-ed, novelist Mark Helprin argues that copyrights should be extended indefinitely. On his blog, Lawrence Lessig suggests using a wiki page to craft a collective rebuttal. More discussion here and here.
posted by Prospero (106 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Re: the wiki page linked under the word "rebuttal": it's fascinating to visit it every hour or so and watch a group of people attempt to use a wiki-style page for a purpose for which such pages aren't well suited (the coherent expression of a single opinion, as opposed to a series of facts).
posted by Prospero at 9:37 AM on May 21, 2007


WHAT if, after you had paid the taxes on earnings with which you built a house, sales taxes on the materials, real estate taxes during your life, and inheritance taxes at your death, the government would eventually commandeer it entirely?

the government? you mean cultural society?
this is utterly ridiculous. ideas aren't fucking objects, people! this hardly calls for a rebuttal. next.
posted by es_de_bah at 9:40 AM on May 21, 2007


WHAT if, after you had paid the taxes on earnings with which you built a house, sales taxes on the materials, real estate taxes during your life, and inheritance taxes at your death, the government would eventually commandeer it entirely?

failing to protect something is not commandeering it, mark ... YOU are the one who is asking the government to do something for you in perpetuity, at taxpayer expense

nice try, though
posted by pyramid termite at 9:42 AM on May 21, 2007 [8 favorites]


Were I tomorrow to write the great American novel (again?)

Now, I read some Helprin and it was OK, but I guess I must have missed his best work. Or maybe not.
posted by freebird at 9:42 AM on May 21, 2007


What about works by artists without descendants or anybody else to benefit from royalties? After their death, what's the point of keeping their work in (perpetually renewed) copyright?
posted by OverlappingElvis at 9:45 AM on May 21, 2007


I want the government to award Helprin an honorary (eternal) copyright on logical fallacies.
posted by tepidmonkey at 9:45 AM on May 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


LOL Mark Helprin. This is the supposedly "non-partisan" guy who ran ABC's The Note and basically regurgitated beltway insider "conventional wisdom" and predicted that the republicans would win in '06 because "Karl Rove was smarter"

That said his argument misses one important diffrence between copyrights and real property. Intelectual property requires the payment of property tax, and people pay an inheritence tax when it's transfered from one generation to the next. Many public domain advocates have been saying that copyrights should require a manditory renewal fee, so that it dosn't fall into "black holes" where no one knows who even owns the rights to something.

If 55% of copyrights returned to the public domain after the authors death (as would their money), and another 55% on the next of kin's death and so on all of it would eventually end up in the public domain.

Furthermore, if people had to pay property tax on IP, more still would end up in PD.

So we would have a much larger PD if IP were taxed like real property. This wouldn't help on the largest, most well known brands like Disney stuff, etc, but those are also covered by trademarks which do last forever anyway.

---
But anyway, these are matters of opinion, not points of fact. The government has wide latitude to create and remove property rights, and so it's really all about politics.
posted by delmoi at 9:46 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


His argument for eternal copyright is pretty weak. He doesn't even pretend that society would benefit in any way from having longer copyright/patent terms, just that ideas are exactly the same kind of property as houses.
posted by justkevin at 9:46 AM on May 21, 2007


this is a guy who used to write speeches for Bob Dole, you know
posted by matteo at 9:46 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


failing to protect something is not commandeering it, mark ... YOU are the one who is asking the government to do something for you in perpetuity, at taxpayer expense

I hope you're not saying that physical property does not require government to keep.
posted by delmoi at 9:47 AM on May 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


Patent's don't last forever. I would be surprised if he advocated this because it the patent for the printing press was indefinite than there would be no publishing industry, thus no essay on copyright extension, and Mark would probably be writing 'zines criticising the system.

But patents do have limits. Thus there's a profitable publishing industry. Thus Mark and the little conservative think-tank he's part of is busy churning out books and pamphlets. Funny how that works.

/feel free to substitute internet/desktop publishing/email for printing press.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:48 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Seventeen economists, including 5 Nobel laureates, say no.
posted by gsteff at 9:50 AM on May 21, 2007 [3 favorites]


It is strange that someone from the Claremon Institute, a thinktank that venerates the founding fathers, would not understand the purpose behind copyright as stated in the Constitution.

"To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;"

This doesn't say a damn thing about the expression of idea as property. It says that if we wish to have more TV series and novels and comic books and nifty pharmaceuticals, we should let the creators make money off of them.

Giving money to someone who owns the rights to Beatles songs now does not seem to be within the scope of the spirit of the constitution. Incentives won't get us more songs.
posted by zabuni at 9:52 AM on May 21, 2007


this is utterly ridiculous. ideas aren't fucking objects, people! this hardly calls for a rebuttal. next.
posted by es_de_bah at 12:40 PM on May 21


I was waiting for someone to bring this up. The intangibility argument usually proceeds along the lines that making physical things takes capital investment, sunk costs, is difficult, etc.

It's 2007, not 1957. Making objects is easy today. Just make an autocad model of it, and you can send it to any of a hundred factories in Asia to have it made at pennies above cost of materials.

Deciding what to make is the hard part.

From a policy standpoint, recall that we manufacture nearly nothing in the US, which means all of the capital investment in factories and jobs has been made somewhere else. You could argue that there's no reason for the United States to give people patent protection on something that isn't manufactured in the United States (thereby creating jobs ,etc). On the other hand, the U.S. leads the world in intellectual property creation. In a world where making physical things is trivial and almost entirely automated, shouldn't the government be rewarding and incentivizing ideas for what to produce?
posted by Pastabagel at 9:53 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


/me pays $15 licensing fee for use of fire, wheel
posted by DU at 9:53 AM on May 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


The worst part of this piece is that he presents near-perpetual copyright as some sort of "originalist" notion. He works for some think tank called the Claremont Institute, which claims to advocate "returning to the ideas of the Founding Fathers." In fact, under the Copyright Act of 1790, copyright lasted for only 14 years, and was renewable once. Many categories of currently-copyrightable documents were not even protected.

The notion of "intelletual property" is a latter-day invention. The founders understood that you can give an idea to someone else without losing possession of it yourself. Equating abstract ideas with tangible objects like yachts is nonsense.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:53 AM on May 21, 2007 [6 favorites]


Giving money to someone who owns the rights to Beatles songs now does not seem to be within the scope of the spirit of the constitution. Incentives won't get us more songs.
posted by zabuni at 12:52 PM on May 21


What are you talking about? There are new songs and new bands every day. The incentive is not for the Beatles to make new songs, but to encourage people who can write songs to actually write them and publish them.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:55 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Not Mark Halperin from abc delmoi, Mark Helprin the novelist.
posted by vronsky at 9:56 AM on May 21, 2007


LOL Mark Helprin. This is the supposedly "non-partisan" guy who ran ABC's The Note and basically regurgitated beltway insider "conventional wisdom" and predicted that the republicans would win in '06 because "Karl Rove was smarter"

No, that's Mark Halperin.

But yes, he is a corrupt hack too.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:58 AM on May 21, 2007


Helprin
posted by vronsky at 9:59 AM on May 21, 2007


Ditto what everyone else says. I read this in my paper yesterday and it pissed me off to no end. Thankfully it's just an editorial.
posted by fungible at 10:00 AM on May 21, 2007


I fully support an infinite copyright on Mark Helprin's essay, along with super-duper DRM and a proprietary Reader application that costs lots of money. Hopefully that'll bury the idea for good.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 10:00 AM on May 21, 2007


A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn't Its Copyright?
No.
Next question?

Ideas are building blocks. Perpetual copyright stifles growth.
posted by nofundy at 10:03 AM on May 21, 2007


Jesus. Any old jackass can start his own blog now.

Wait, this appeared where?
posted by Greg Nog at 10:06 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


That anyone takes the bloviations of Mark Helprin seriously, most of all on a subject like copyright, is both absurd and pitiful.
posted by blucevalo at 10:07 AM on May 21, 2007


What are you talking about? There are new songs and new bands every day. The incentive is not for the Beatles to make new songs, but to encourage people who can write songs to actually write them and publish them.

I should have said "greater incentives to those that currently have rights to the Beatles" won't get us more songs. Congress extending copyright ever x number of years for existing copyrights doesn't seem to spur creators, or their inheritors, to create more.

I wish the methodology was a bit more scientific for determining the length of a copyright. I suspect that the relationship between length of copyright and incentive to create works is not linear, and is subject to diminishing returns. If the purpose of copyright and patent law is to increase the total amount of cultural and scientific works in society, I doubt that an indefinite extension would cause more items to be created.

Even if the relationship was linear, we must temper the need for cultural artifacts and scientific progress with the societal costs that intellectual property has. I suspect that one of the main reasons that patent law has not kept lock step with copyright in terms of extensions is that patents are worth more. Free use of Beatles songs, while a net societal good, probably is not worth near the value of free use of the polio vaccine.
posted by zabuni at 10:09 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


It is strange that someone from the Claremon Institute, a thinktank that venerates the founding fathers, would not understand the purpose behind copyright as stated in the Constitution.

Amen. At least it's finally nice to see this hilariously anti-common society argument stated right out. It's been really annoying watching Disney dance around it in their defense of extending Mickey's copyright again and again and again...
posted by mediareport at 10:10 AM on May 21, 2007


Damn, another author whose works I respect turning out to be kind of a jerk in real life. Winter's Tale was an amazing book. Of course, if Mr Helprin has his way, my descendents will never read it because it will still be under copyright, but not worth the expense for any publisher to produce...like 90% of the books that are under copyright now.
The public domain is what lets an author live forever.

(Freddy and Fredericka sucked though)
posted by Eddie Mars at 10:11 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Literary Warrior: Mark Helprin's fictional marvels and political heterodoxies

I've been reading his fiction since 1983. His WSJ op-eds, not so much. Anyway, no, he isn't the journalist.
posted by dhartung at 10:11 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Copyright and fair use is a symbiotic relationship. Disney wouldn't exist without fair use of earlier material and new and greater talents wouldn't emerge had Disney not been successful. Small children read Shakespeare's plays and are inspired to be great writers and actors and in turn leave their work for future generations. There's an entire generation of high school students who now won't be practicing music with Gershwin pieces because of Sonny's Bono's ludicrous extension act. Making copyright indefinite is the proverbial gutting of the Golden Goose.

If Halpern truly thought ideas were a commodity, he'd be smart enough to realize that like livestock, you don't have a magical animal that gives meat and milk forever. There's this whole process of feeding and breeding that comes into play.

Trademarks and patents are a different thing because you're dealing with tangible property. Copyright isn't about ownership but the actual right to be the one distributing material for profit and preventing others from doing the same. It's a protection for the benefit of the creator in that it guarantees the creator will safely know they will recieve due reward for their effort. When the creator is gone, the need for that protection is completely and utterly irrelevant.

Halpern's argument is bullshit because instead of suggesting forbidding the free use of Disney cartoons he's equating it to the right of the government to storm into Burbank and take over their studio. As others already said, that's pretty much the end of the argument right there.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 10:12 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


All Mark needs to do is get elected to Congress then die in some hideous vacation mishap. Then Congress will draft up another copyright extension, tack his name on it and stuff its ass full of pork.
posted by kickback at 10:16 AM on May 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


After lurking for a couple of years, I joined metafilter to "vent" on this subject.

Unfortunately, my finger can't type as quick as the other replies seem to be coming in.
I was going to mention the wheel too !

The alphabet ! hello ! don't be using THESE 26 letters, get your own.

Copyright is vastly overused in the U.S.A. Oh, wait, they have the most money to protect

The music industry in particular, is whining about file copying.
Is this the same music industry that was stealing from and taking advantage of black artists in the 1950"s ?

But now says, Yo, dog, they's stealing from us, these downloaders.

Computer programmers should be paid a fair amount for their work.

But able to become the richest person in the world after a few years of copyright ?

What happened to sharing.
posted by lurkernomore at 10:23 AM on May 21, 2007


Ideas/books/etc should fall under a strict use it or lose it paradigm. Copyright for x number of years, renewable 1x if it is generating income, if not perhaps a holder's fee could be paid to renew it that 1x. After which PD it. Eternal copyright may actually repress further thought/work by the copy right holder him/her self, when is the last time Micky Mouse has been currently culturally relevant outside the theme parks.
A great idea can be stifling.
Who judges which ideas are great?
posted by edgeways at 10:23 AM on May 21, 2007


Speaking as another writer (and yes, I make my living by writing) ... I benefit not one whit from copyright extending even one second past the signature on my death certificate. I might gain some peace of mind in the present from knowing that my wife and heirs won't be cut off at the knees, but that's strictly secondary -- especially as 95% of authors go out of print for good within four years of their death.

And I really resent the suggestion that, if I fall into the other 5%, my hard work should be used to provide rentier income for people who haven't been born yet, with whom I share no emotional or familial connection, for no other reason than because some right-wing ass-hat dislikes the idea of paying his dues to the cultural commons.
posted by cstross at 10:25 AM on May 21, 2007 [3 favorites]


Mark Twain said it better.

Not that I find his argument entirely convincing, but it's still a better read than Mark Helprin. And I do think people make too much of the difference between intellectual property and real property: both are abstractions created by the law; both have some legitimate moral and practical reasons to exist; neither, in my opinion, is handled quite as reasonably as it could be.
posted by moss at 10:27 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


The appeal to the framers -- a rhetorical technique certainly worthy of elevation to the company of the other g -- is extremely ironic: does one really think that if, say:
  1. an automated printing press cost no more than a week's wages secondhand (and a month's wages new)
  2. sat on the desk of every clerical employee and in the home of nearly every workingman
  3. could not only impress words upon paper but also transmit them through the ether -- well-night-costlessly -- to anyone, anywhere on earth
that in those circumstances the founding fathers -- all first and foremost practical men, and most of them at least mildly disposed to favor liberty over grasping control -- would have been in favor of a system of laws whose uniform and active enforcement (if it were in fact enforceable at all) would not only run contrary to the spirit -- if not to the letter, at least to the letter as interpreted in the currently popular schools -- of the (chronologically subsequent, but let us not let that stop us) first and fourth amendments but would also require practices and institutions reminiscent of those used under the much-hated stamp acts?

And certainly the founding fathers -- many of them lawyers and thus keenly aware of how laws do and do not translate into their intend aims -- would have been aware that under the same assumption of vanishingly inexpensive and frighteningly ubiquitous means of transmission and reproduction it would be folly to leave that system of laws to passive, retroactive enforcement: if not completely ineffective due to the costs of seeking out violators, it would leave all private citizens perpetually at risk of being (claimed to be) in the possession of stolen property, and thus at perpetual risk of search, seizure, or tort.

So: were the founding fathers to have been writing at a time when the means to transmit and reproduce information goods was inexpensive and ubiquitous it seems quite unlikely -- given what we know of the intellectual climate of the time and the founders' general philosophical leanings -- that anything like the current system of intellectual property laws would have even been considered, let alone enshrined in the constitution itself; they might, indeed, have wondered how best to promote the progress of the useful arts and sciences, but under those circumstances it's hard to believe they would have thought it no more prudent to legislate as Helprin suggests than they would have thought it prudent to legislate for a climate temperate year-round and a sea without storms.
posted by little miss manners at 10:28 AM on May 21, 2007 [3 favorites]


Just to clarify, I don't agree that copyright terms should be indefinite, and I do think there should be a renewal fee or at least some maintenance fee you have to pay before it lapses, that way it's clear when things fall into the public domain.

But to take the opposite extreme that ideas are unprotectable is equally silly. The focus of extending copyright terms is not individuals like you, its competitor corporations. If Steamboat Willie fell into the public domain, Fox could remake it, release a modern version, and then create derivate works featuring the same characters (who happen to look like Mickey Mouse) in the form of sequels. That ultimately diminishes the value of Disney's copyright in more recent Mickey Mouse productions, because Mickey Mouse becomes a commodity, even though Mickey Mouse proper is a trademark. In other words, the issues are a bit more complex.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:30 AM on May 21, 2007


From dhartung's link, a quote from Helprin, noted without comment :

We create nothing new—no one has ever imagined a new color—so what you are doing is revitalizing. You are remembering, then combining, altering.
posted by suckerpunch at 10:31 AM on May 21, 2007


But patents do have limits. Thus there's a profitable publishing industry. Thus Mark and the little conservative think-tank he's part of is busy churning out books and pamphlets. Funny how that works.

If you read his (flaccid and unpersuasive) op-ed, you'll see that he—conveniently for himself—makes a mystical qualitative distinction between lofty "art" and all other ideas.

I was waiting for someone to bring this up.

I, too, am not very persuaded by what I think is the all-too-simplistic "it's not a thing, it can't be stolen!" argument.

The problem here, though, is that the production of physical objects invests in them in a unique way the value of the various kinds of material and more importantly human capital that went into making them. This is a Good Thing, it allows an exchange of value. With an exchange of value, there are incentives to produce and we all win as a result.

But we're entering into the so-called "information economy" and, contrary to the beliefs of simpleminded techno-utopians, this doesn't really mean a bounty for everyone. It could mean the reverse, actually, because we're losing our convenient, real-world basis for exchange of value. It's convenient and "real-world" because it's self-creating and regulating. Removing the tangible basis for this removes the ways in which this exists indepedent from fiat. Which means that, as you point out, an information economy has to have its medium for exchange of value be created by government.

This isn't ideal, at least with respect to the fact that it doesn't have the inherent virtues that material production has. But we're going to have to come to terms with this, one way or another. And that's going to require a rigorous legal codification of the ways in which value is exchanged in the form of ideas. This requires that ideas be declared property in some sense.

Now, all that doesn't mean that value in the form of information and the exchange thereof doesn't have its own unique virtues which counter its vices; and, particularly, it doesn't mean that what will work best is for us to take the whole legal structure concerning tangible property and imposing it upon information "property". It well may be that, to some degree anyway, we can have our cake and eat it, too.

However, the bottom line is that what is really happening in economic exchange is the distillation of human labor into things that people can trade with one another. The material is, perhaps, the least part of it. The stuff is a convenient place for that value to "reside", but that value is just as much there in a poem, a blueprint, a song, or a novel. We just happening to be living in a time when more and more things are important to us that happen to not have their value manifested in stuff. But the value is still there and the economic activity is still there and the reasons we do the things we do are still there. In economic terms—human terms, really—the fact that these things aren't tangible is of relatively little importance. A musician still has to eat. A farmer still wants to listen to music. Things have to keep working, or neither will be able to do those things and both will starve in their own ways.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:32 AM on May 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


How much is Helprin paying the Sumerian guy (yes, and others) who invented writing? The Babylonian who invented the calendar? Hell, most of the early American industrial revolution depended on violating English patents on water-wheels and drive-shafts and various cogs and pulleys. That God there was no Berne Convention then, huh?

When Helprin enjoys Bach's Musical Offering, does he send a buck to the descendants of Bach's patron, Frederick II of Prussia?

The truth is, every one of us -- even the most prolific and creative inventors -- benefit far more from our shared cultural patrimony than we contribute to it.

Most of Newton's genius would have been wasted if he'd had to spend his life chasing down gazelles to get his lunch. Little of that genius would have been transmitted to anyone without the efforts of the anonymous inventor of writing and thousands of others who refined that tool and so many other tools down through the ages.

Information, knowledge -- they are not, contrary to the more glib claims of the Open Source movement, free. Knowledge must be wrested from nature at great cost by discovers, and each of us to understand that knowledge must pay our own cost to learn it.

But the Open Source advocates aren't wrong either: knowledge can be transmitted at little marginal cost: writing a book, designing an algorithm, developing a curriculum has a high cost; but the additional cost to make it available to all is the negligible amount required to host it on a web server. Nor is it "free" to anyone -- anyone who wants to possess it must take the time and effort to learn it, to re-make his own mind by incorporating that new (to him) knowledge. There is no "royal road" to knowledge; commoner or king must wrestle it into his own head.

Don't be a Philistine, Mr. Helprin: millions, alive and dead, your teachers and people entirely unknown to you have for fifty thousand years given you knowledge and indeed a rich material culture based on that knowledge. Don't begrudge passing it on.
posted by orthogonality at 10:42 AM on May 21, 2007 [10 favorites]


"To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;" [emphasis added]
posted by caddis at 10:45 AM on May 21, 2007


zabuni has it right. the constitution uses the phrase "for a limited time" in reference to patents and copyrights. for a limited time != forever.
posted by bruce at 10:46 AM on May 21, 2007


All death-of-literature issues aside, the real reason for copyright limitations is that their existence prevents us from enduring generation upon generation of worthless trustifarian trash whose only accomplishment is having been born into the bloodline of, say, John fucking Grisham. This Helprin would plunge us into a nightmare world populated by Paris Hiltons and GWBs. To the future, I say: Get a fucking job!
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:49 AM on May 21, 2007


zabuni has it right. the constitution uses the phrase "for a limited time" in reference to patents and copyrights. for a limited time != forever.

Which is why Jack Valenti and Mary Bono suggested- with a straight face- that the Copyright Act be extended to "forever less a day."
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 10:50 AM on May 21, 2007


Let's see... This is the same Mark Helprin who wrote the book "Winter's Tale," which is loosely based on the Shakespearean work by the same name.

Thus, if copyrights really did last forever, Helprin would owe a metric ass-ton of money to the Bard's descendants.

All of which would be richly deserved, both for penning this godawful essay in the Times, and for writing the second half of "Winter's Tale," which, with its impenetrable prose and flat character development, completely betrays the beauty and magic of the first half.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:07 AM on May 21, 2007


Still, wouldn't be great to see the descendants of Grimm and Anderson sue the Disney Corp back to the stone age?
posted by bonecrusher at 11:11 AM on May 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


Why do people make this so difficult.

Copyright should extend to the life of the originator of the copyright, or until he sells it to someone else, at which point it becomes a commodity that's only copyrighted so long as the corporate entity buying it can afford to protect it in court. Or forty years whichever is lesser. Once the originator sells it, a company can't sell it to antoher company who can't sell it to another company. That's what's got us in the trouble we're in now.

The more complex you make it, the worse it's gonna get. Period.
posted by ZachsMind at 11:13 AM on May 21, 2007


I used to be pretty virulently anti-prepetual copyright. I'm still virulently anti-prepetual patents (and against software, algorighm, and business method patents altogether). Copyright, however, covers only a particular arrangement of words, not ideas.

I'd be perfectly content to let copyright be perpetual under two conditions. The first is some ironclad parody and fair use provisions. The second, and vastly more important, is a provision that requires perpetual publishing.

No more out of print anything if its still copyrighted. If someone once published it, and continues to demand copyright protection then they should be under obligation to make their copyrighted work available. With today's easy and inexpensive production of CD's, DVD's and even dead tree format text this is not an onerous burden.

If a company doesn't want to sell its copyrighted property it can surrender that property to the public domain.

The fact that a lot of material is vanishing because it is illegal to copy and no longer sold is a travisty, and if we are going to serously consider eternal copyright something needs to be done about that.
posted by sotonohito at 11:14 AM on May 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


I never liked Mark Helprin.

I like him even less now.
posted by languagehat at 11:15 AM on May 21, 2007


No one owns an idea.

We give limited monopolies on ideas so that people can make a profit from them, and then, they're returned to the public so that everyone can use them free of charge as a foundation for their own great ideas.

Unlimited copyright means every sentence that's uttered becomes a unique snowflake that has to be licensed for reuse. Unlimited copyright means every plot has to be vetted to make sure it doesn't resemble the plot of any other work ever written so that it'll be free of legal encumbrances (maybe). Unlimited copyright means no technologies based on any other technology, ever, can be created without negotiating licensing fees.

What an asshole. I'm sure he feels his work is so perfect and original that it will live on forever and provide his heirs with a generous income.
posted by bshort at 11:22 AM on May 21, 2007


All death-of-literature issues aside, the real reason for copyright limitations is that their existence prevents us from enduring generation upon generation of worthless trustifarian trash whose only accomplishment is having been born into the bloodline of, say, John fucking Grisham.

As a political conservative, Helprin is basing his argument on his belief that property rights are "natural" rights. Period. And then he extends this to include his proposition that art is just like property (but most other kinds of ideas aren't).

I almost could not possibly think less of this argument and, speaking for myself, I take an extreme position and support an inheritance tax close to 100% that applies to everyone, with almost no exemptions whatsoever...because I think that transgenerational accumulations of wealth are (both ideally and in practice) less productive than when the wealth is redistributed by the government at death.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:27 AM on May 21, 2007


Pastabagel: No, because Mickey Mouse is trademarked, and trademarks can be perpetually renewed. Anyone could reproduce Steamboat Willie, but if they were to remake it, they'd have to avoid using Mickey.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 11:28 AM on May 21, 2007


Anyone could reproduce Steamboat Willie

...that is, if it were in the public domain.

If it ever enters the public domain.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 11:33 AM on May 21, 2007


The best part about this is how Mark Helprin thinks that he'd be allowed to keep his forever copyright if he wanted to be published.
posted by eriko at 11:38 AM on May 21, 2007


I'm no brain surgeon, but I can easily see that our society is MADE OF ideas. No one can create things out of nothing; all ideas are made entirely of others. The ingenuity is in coming up with new ways to arrange them. This Saruman wannabe's "I got mine" attitude is amazingly ignorant.

Saying that no new idea should ever be free for common use is to encase our cultural development within the ice of litigation.

Yeah, a couple dozen other people have stated words ultimately to this effect already, but damn it. A wizard should know better.

The most telling thing is right at the start:

WHAT if, after you had paid the taxes on earnings with which you built a house, sales taxes on the materials, real estate taxes during your life, and inheritance taxes at your death, the government would eventually commandeer it entirely?

But they don't do that with intellectual property! Stuff in the public domain is owned by the public, not the gov'ment. They don't t lock it up at all! In fact, anyone can take something IN the public domain, change it in the barest way possible, and claim copyright on THAT. Geez!

This is so obviously misleading that it seems disingenuous. This is not an honest argument, this is propaganda.

To Pastabagel: I am sorry, I do not buy your argument. It is impossible to escape the economics of physical scarcity, it will never turn out that ideas are rarer than the stuff to shape into their physical form, no matter what it may seem to any of us at the moment. The law of conservation of matter is against you on this.
posted by JHarris at 11:44 AM on May 21, 2007


If copyrights went away tomorrow, what would happen? My prediction:

Chaos and catastrophe, from a business perspective. What would've been 'pirate' vendors of once-copyrighted material would have a bonanza, duplicating and reselling the now public domained material. Markets would splinter as a bonanza of previously locked-up material becomes available, and eclectic tastes become commonplace. Lots of people in Los Angeles would lose their jobs. The corporate creativity industry would wither.

From a cultural perspective, a million megaton explosion of creativity. All the material that was once locked up via copyright would be fodder for mixes, mashups, samples, reinterpretations, rewrites, and on and on. Meanwhile, artists would continue to make art. Musicians would continue to make music. Writers would continue to write. Society would continue to make stars, and stars would continue to be rewarded handsomely.

It seems to me that to achieve the original goal of the framers, promoting the progress of the useful arts and sciences, it would be best to have shorter copyrights, not longer ones.
posted by mullingitover at 11:45 AM on May 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


“...commandeer it entirely? This does not happen in our
society ... to houses.”

Uh, what? If your descendants don’t continue to pay property taxes on the house it will get taken.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:58 AM on May 21, 2007


I'm going to be blunt here. Most of that op-ed piece really seems to be

"Waaaaaah! Everyone is mean to us poor, starving writers, who only live to create true art!"

Or so it seemed to me.

I'll just say, as a member of the unwashed, uncultured plebeian masses, if you don't like the job, find another one. Maybe then you can eat something other than gruel.
posted by Samizdata at 12:03 PM on May 21, 2007


Copyright is a government-granted, government-enforced monopoly on the propagation of particular ideas. Once your copyright expires, the government stops doing you the favor of legally protecting and enforcing it.

Helprin attempts to portray the situation as exactly the opposite: he construes copyright as a "natural right", and implies that when it expires, "the government" takes your "intellectual property" away.

Balderdash.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 12:04 PM on May 21, 2007


If copyrights went away tomorrow, movies would die and the theatre would explode. The movie industry relies on being able to sell a non-copyable product whereas the theatre is an in-situ experience that is not easily reproduced elsewhere.
posted by patricio at 12:09 PM on May 21, 2007


Can somebody hook me up with a torrent of his works? I've always wanted to read the great American novel.
posted by substrate at 12:13 PM on May 21, 2007


I like Mark Helprin's novels, so I am sad to hear that he is a retard.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:15 PM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


If copyrights went away tomorrow, movies would die and the theatre would explode.

Not hardly. Most of that "non-copyable" product can be (illegally) found for free on the internet within 24 hours of its theatrical debut. The film industry seems to be doing just fine.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:17 PM on May 21, 2007


Copyrights even as long (or short, as chance may have it) as the life of the author serve no one but the author. They certainly don't serve the rest of society. Does anyone seriously believe that someone would be less likely to write a novel, film a motion picture, take a photograph, or write a piece of software if copyright terms were only (say) 25 years instead of the life of the author?

If people really want to wring their hands over the poor author who can only live off their opus for 25 years, why not have the additional caveat that a statutory royalty must be paid to the author for commercial works created between the expiration of the copyright and the expiration of the author?

I can answer that, and easily. Copyright law is the way it is not because of starving authors, creativity, or any other such moral or practical reason. It is the way it is because large corporations benefit from reaping rewards for their employee's (and sometimes founder's) long past labor into the indefinite future. These corporations like to come up with ridiculously unfounded emotional arguments like, say, Mickey Mouse in porn to confuse people who do not have the time or inclination to consider the issue more than superficially. My SO, in the past, supported indefinite copyright based on that argument alone. (She has many fond memories of Disney World from a very early age, and thus places an exceptionally high value on Mickey and keeping him unmolested)
posted by wierdo at 12:40 PM on May 21, 2007


No, theater would thrive, and the movies would explode.

Why would a theater invest in a movie, if a copy could easily be made and shown without compensation?

Without copyright, the aggregators, like Google, and TV and radio stations, and book publishers would get the $$$. Wal-Mart would set up a publishing arm, and a movie arm, where they would make cheap copies of popular books, movies and music, for rock bottom prices. Granted, they would have to be rock bottom prices, as all of it would be for free on multiple sites on the net, the price at the store a convenience fee.

Right now, copyright still works for the most part because it becomes very easy to sue any large organization that starts to distribute copyright work for any reason. It's hard to stop Joe Bloe from downloading fansubbed anime off the net, but it is very easy to stop Wal-Mart from selling said anime on a DVD. Killing copyright would lead to both happening.

Coincidentally, this is why Creative Commons works still have some monetary value for their rights. I can guarantee, if Amazon tried to sell unauthorized copies of Cory Doctorow's work, lawsuits would fly. And I've always found if funny that the quickest way to get a copyfighter to call copyright infringement stealing if for a large corporation to infringe.
posted by zabuni at 12:50 PM on May 21, 2007


Copyright law is the way it is not because of starving authors, creativity, or any other such moral or practical reason. It is the way it is because large corporations benefit from reaping rewards for their employee's (and sometimes founder's) long past labor into the indefinite future.

This is a fallacy. The reason corporate interests support copyright extensions isn't that they want the profits that their works will generate 50 years from now. As the econ amicus brief I linked above demonstrates, the practical value of those revenues is miniscule. They support copyright extension because they want to kill the public domain- they don't want to have to compete with it.

Shorter copyright term would reduce the profits for new works significantly, and possibly the incentives to create them, because competition from the public domain would drive prices down. In econ terms, it would noticeably reduce the producer surplus. It would still be a net gain, though (econ types say), because of the massive increase in the consumer surplus that would result from an expanded library of freely available works. And even the decline in the producer surplus is uncertain, because a larger public domain would make it easier to make derivative works, possibly lowering the cost of creating new works enough to compensate for the lower prices. This all has to be answered quantitatively, of course, but from my reading on the economics of copyright, no economists who study copyright think the current package of restrictions is anywhere near efficient.

The classic paper on this issue is An Economic Analysis of Copyright Law (Posner and Landes).
posted by gsteff at 1:04 PM on May 21, 2007


It's an interesting subject, zabuni, but since I don't think anyone's actually arguing for the absolute death of copyright -- just for reasonable limitations upon its duration -- I'm not sure it's all that hugely relevant, really.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:09 PM on May 21, 2007


Shorter copyright term would reduce the profits for new works significantly, and possibly the incentives to create them

Not to get all airy-fairy here or anything, but actual artists don't need incentives to create new works. They just...do. 'Cause that's kind of an artist's job.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:12 PM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't think anyone's actually arguing for the absolute death of copyright

(Future) Justice Breyer did (kinda).
posted by gsteff at 1:15 PM on May 21, 2007


Duly noted, gsteff...though I meant, like, in the thread, as a response to Helprin's article. Maybe I missed something?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:17 PM on May 21, 2007


Maybe I missed something?

Nah, I just like semi-sequiturs.
posted by gsteff at 1:20 PM on May 21, 2007


Not Mark Halperin from abc delmoi, Mark Helprin the novelist.

Well fuck. I'm surprised he didn't think to trademark his name. There is definetly some brand-confusion going on.
posted by delmoi at 1:21 PM on May 21, 2007


Randomly, I happen to be reading Winter's Tale right now (picked up secondhand at the library booksale, so bite me Mr. Helprin). His facile arguments about copyright have been well rebutted here already, but I wanted to pull this line out of dhartung's link:

No living authors influence his writing, Helprin says.

And no living humans influence his dialogue, either.

But I agree with him. The government should get its grubby paws off of copyright entirely. Anyone who can should be allowed to defend their own rights to their own ideas for as long as they want.
posted by rusty at 1:23 PM on May 21, 2007


gsteff writes "because competition from the public domain would drive prices down"

Except that public domain doesn't compete ; what they are afraid of is people not accepting to pay premium (or at all !) when they can have works they like for a little price or for free. But that's on the assumption that there is already so much content the market is aflood with product, much of which is copyrighted hot water anyway, so that by maintaining copyright the company can also restrict access to old stuff while making a profit from the marginal demand for old works.

It's evidently a lot less then efficient, but it wouldn't become more efficient even with an effetive anti-copy system ; actually that would make the scheme even more profiteable, as the little guys wannabe competitior would hardly have the finances needed to fight copyright claims in court , and also because there is no reason to reduce profit margin if you can't actually manage to reach the customers, even by reducing price.

It must expire and an human lifetime of exploitation seems already enough.
posted by elpapacito at 1:26 PM on May 21, 2007


Not to get all airy-fairy here or anything, but actual artists don't need incentives to create new works. They just...do. 'Cause that's kind of an artist's job.

That's idealistic and, well, false. That's exactly like saying that physicists don't become physicists to get jobs, they do it because they love physics. Well, the thing is, that's mostly true but because there's more physicists than there are jobs, there's less physics being done because a large number of trained physicists can't work as physicists, even though they'd like to, because there aren't jobs for them. What this amounts to is that your argument is a logical fallacy (assuming you're correct about motivation): just because an artist isn't primarily motivated by income to produce doesn't logically mean that a lack of income isn't a barrier to production. And, in fact, it is. Artists of all types through history have either needed a market for their product or patrons in the form of individuals or cultural institutions.

It is indisputable that there are vastly larger markets for creative production in the developed, wealthy nations and a correspondingly greater number of artists. That's because they are more able to support themselves (though perhaps minimally) than their temperamental counterparts elsewhere.

I think translating your argument into a context that is (probably) not as romantized by you (though by others) is illuminating. While it's true that most physicists I've known (as well as many/most other scientists and many other academics and researchers) do what they do because they love the activity, not the income, to remove it from the realm of productive work that should be financially rewarding is, in its own way, insulting to them. That's why such people grumble about their pitiful salaries—grumbling that may seem ironic given that they will often tell you in the same breath that they don't do the work for the money. But it's still work, it's still valuable, and it should be considered valuable. Romanticizing it to something outside the context of valuable work which should be commensurately financially rewarded is, in a way, insulting. And my point is that it's equally insulting to artists.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:30 PM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Not to get all airy-fairy here or anything, but actual artists don't need incentives to create new works. They just...do. 'Cause that's kind of an artist's job.

That's not a "job." That's a "hobby" or a "calling."

Trust me on this one-- Michael Bay does not make movies because "that's what he does." He does it because he gets compensated for it. I know that's a bad example because he's the worst of the bunch, but Peter Jackson wouldn't have made LoTR if the product weren't copyrightable. Now, of course, he made it knowing that the copyright is not in perpetuity, but basically proves the point that Helprin is full of it.

You could write a book on everything Helprin got wrong in his essay. However, at its base, he needs to accept that intellectual property is not physical property, and the ability to control intellectual property is merely a privilege granted to the authors by society because of the societal benefits before it returns to the public domain, where it belongs.
posted by deanc at 1:38 PM on May 21, 2007


It is strange that someone from the Claremon Institute, a thinktank that venerates the founding fathers, would not understand the purpose behind copyright as stated in the Constitution.

"To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;"

This doesn't say a damn thing about the expression of idea as property.


Exactly. Copyright does not protect 'ideas', but the 'expression of ideas'.

The problem here, though, is that the production of physical objects invests in them in a unique way the value of the various kinds of material and more importantly human capital that went into making them. This is a Good Thing, it allows an exchange of value. With an exchange of value, there are incentives to produce and we all win as a result.

But we're entering into the so-called "information economy" and, contrary to the beliefs of simpleminded techno-utopians, this doesn't really mean a bounty for everyone. It could mean the reverse, actually, because we're losing our convenient, real-world basis for exchange of value. It's convenient and "real-world" because it's self-creating and regulating. Removing the tangible basis for this removes the ways in which this exists indepedent from fiat. Which means that, as you point out, an information economy has to have its medium for exchange of value be created by government.

This isn't ideal, at least with respect to the fact that it doesn't have the inherent virtues that material production has. But we're going to have to come to terms with this, one way or another. And that's going to require a rigorous legal codification of the ways in which value is exchanged in the form of ideas. This requires that ideas be declared property in some sense.


Formally, IP law will not declare an idea property. Only the expression of that idea can be 'property'. A business method and software can be patented, but this is not granting IP rights to an idea -- it is granting IP rights to a process or the application of an idea. This is perfectly in line with the 'information economy' and there is no need to revise the constitution.

There is no less of a bounty because people are now creating software instead of horseshoes. [And I question whether there ever has been a bounty for everyone in any type of economy]

And no, rigorous legal codification is not at all necessary. US IP law is quite capable of handling new developments. The 'information economy' has not been cause for a need to overhaul either US or international IP law.
- patents still must be novel
- copyrights are only going to be granted to original works

---
What is most striking about the article is that the author is confused as to why he has IP rights in the first place. His books - or rather his expressions of ideas - are what is protected -- not the ideas he had for these books.

IP rights are limited monopolies. Copyrights are granted because, ultimately, the public benefits from author having an incentive to be creative and create works that will eventually become part of the public domain. This, as I undstand the issue, was the intent of the founders.
posted by pwedza at 2:03 PM on May 21, 2007


I have my own absurd theories on copyright (feel free to get me drunk and have me expound wildly on the intellectual house of cards I'd like to build), but the idea of perpetual copyright strikes me as a gateway to all kinds of silliness. Jennifer Anniston's great-great grandchildren will be able to attack hapless passers-by for their Jencut (TM) hair, when it finally comes back into style. Not to mention, the first guy who begins to submit near-endless streams of five word combinations to the copyright office in the hopes of suing anyone who writes anything, ever again, well, his distant ancestors will probably own everything.
posted by adipocere at 2:20 PM on May 21, 2007


Perpetual copyright would require a Constitutional Amendment. Article 1, Section 8 grants Congress the power
To promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
The Constitution doesn't give Congress the power to grant copyright for unlimited times.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:24 PM on May 21, 2007


Well, maybe not unlimited. But how about a million years? That's a limited time.
posted by Green With You at 2:37 PM on May 21, 2007


Thus, if copyrights really did last forever, Helprin would owe a metric ass-ton of money to the Bard's descendants.

Or to the Will Shakespeare Company. Which probably wouldn't have granted Helprin a license to write Winter's Tale in the first place, as they wouldn't have wanted competition for their direct-to-DVD sequel plays.

(Remember, kids! You have just three weeks left to buy Coriolanus 3: When In Rome before it goes back in the Shakespeare Vault)!
posted by Iridic at 2:39 PM on May 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


A copyright's ownership should decrease 2 percent every year. The part of the ownership that is not the creator's (half after 25 years, etc.) should go to a public trust that uses its profits to support artists working in similar media. A beginning author might (or might not) get a grant from the trust, write a profitable book, keep all earnings the first year, 98 percent the second, etc, while the trust gets a larger and larger portion. The trust would own 100 percent after 50 years but the work would become public domain the next year.
posted by pracowity at 2:51 PM on May 21, 2007


Politics aside, Mr. Helprin is an impressive figure. I love the idea of "straight-line walking." The fact that Capa was his godfather is enough for me.

via dhartung's link above -

Consider the following collection of snapshots from Helprin’s unwritten memoirs. His godfather was the celebrated photographer Robert Capa; Helprin served briefly in the British Merchant Navy and the Israeli army and air force; he can voluntarily raise or lower his pulse, he says, by 20 beats per minute; he met Malcolm X twice, and Martin Luther King Jr. once—the latter at Christmastime, alongside an enormous bowl of shrimp (“We talked about shrimp,” Helprin says). In Copenhagen, a violent, screaming Judy Garland occupied the adjoining hotel room; in Montreux, his balcony was next to that of a gentlemanly Vladimir Nabokov. In 1987, Helprin was in Los Angeles to sign a motion-picture deal for Winter’s Tale with Columbia Pictures president David Puttnam. He let Jane Fonda go in before him and lost the deal because Puttnam was fired just as Fonda left the office. (Helprin has small esteem for the Hollywood business model, which he calls “equal parts wild animal, tyrant, agitated psychotic, and the kind of snake that is rumored to enter the house through the toilet.”) He saw the Queen Mother process down a seedy back street in Ossining; in 1973 he warned, through channels, of the impending war against Israel, but Moshe Dayan wasn’t listening to an enlisted man. He disarmed a huge, drunken, knife-wielding lout on the New York City subway. His languages include Latin, French, Italian, Hebrew, Arabic, and German. Helprin’s hero is Winston Churchill, and in 2001, when he and family traveled to London, within 15 minutes of arriving in South Kensington they found themselves waiting to cross a street alongside Winston S. Churchill III, the hero’s grandson and namesake. Helprin used to do dangerous things, like mountain climbing, parachute jumping, and running along the tops of moving freight trains. He once ran a double marathon of more than 50 miles. In addition, “He attracts madmen,” says his wife, Lisa. “If we were separated while shopping and there was a commotion somewhere in the store, it always involved Mark. Horses will rear up when they see him.”

“These things happen to me—they just do and they always have,” Helprin says. “I take great joy in these things, I love them. It’s not that I am touched by any kind of magical quality. I’m just willing to make these connections because I’m open and alert to them.”

What he is not open to is a life of luxury, in the celebrity-magazine sense. “If I’m in a limousine, I feel like I’ve got African termites crawling all over me,” he says. “I detest fancy restaurants and fancy hotel rooms.” He even prefers military aircraft and their tendency to shake passengers around in rough air to the comforts of a smooth commercial flight. “I feel safer because the aircraft are more basic,” he explains.

Helprin does not like it smooth, and never has. Ever since he was a small boy he has practiced what he calls “straight-line walking,” i.e., walking from one point to another as the crow flies, heedless of whatever obstacles may intervene—“through houses, ponds, and streams, trespassing, going through barns and places you shouldn’t be. I’d crawl through brambles and over rocks, slog through muddy, disgusting marshes and reeds, over railroad tracks and dams,” he says.
posted by vronsky at 4:05 PM on May 21, 2007


vronsky, what I gather from all of that is that Helprin considered learning about the legal system, intellectual property, and government to be beneath his station in life and never had the discipline to apply his intellect to learning about those fields, outside of a cookie-cutter "natural law" philosophy espoused by his own think tank. Later on, he figured he could use his professional stature in order to argue in favor of policies that he had no business commenting on.

For all the supposed life experience he may have gained, he was unable to come up with ideas about copyright any more creative than those of Sonny Bono.

I'm not normally this bitchy, and he sounds like a colorful character, but the guy you enjoy having an exciting adventure with isn't necessarily the same guy you think should be writing our laws.
posted by deanc at 4:30 PM on May 21, 2007


Fair enough deanc, you're entitled to hate on him all you want. I did say, "politics aside."

And I happen to share this one synaesthetic peculiarity with him, so I am more sympathetic towards him than you. Politics aside.

"Another neurological syndrome, possibly related, may have its literary upside; he says its effects are comparable to spilling a droplet of ink on a blotter. “Every drop spreads, in my brain,” he explains. “For every word I speak, I see a picture.”
posted by vronsky at 5:16 PM on May 21, 2007


“For every word I speak, I see a picture.”

I hadn't heard of that manifestation of synaesthesia. There's a similar manifestation of it that associates letters with colors. Obviously, he's not your average person. Politics aside.
posted by deanc at 6:25 PM on May 21, 2007


It is, then, for the public good. But it might also be for the public good were Congress to allow the enslavement of foreign captives and their descendants (this was tried);

Please tell me this guy isn't drawing an analogy between finite-term copyrights and freaking SLAVERY.
posted by brain_drain at 7:31 PM on May 21, 2007


"Mark" "Helprin"? Is that his real name, or is that just a copy of the names of other people?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:33 PM on May 21, 2007



“Not to get all airy-fairy here or anything, but actual artists don't need incentives to create new works. They just...do. 'Cause that's kind of an artist's job.”


That's idealistic and, well, false.

what was emily dickinson's incentive? franz kafka's? all those people who post their music up on music.metafilter.com?

there really are people who make art whether they get paid or not ... i know, i'm one of them
posted by pyramid termite at 8:37 PM on May 21, 2007


I'm rather pleased to see some of what I'd consider the most conservative voices on MeFi vehemently disagreeing with Helprin - and with very thoughtful, well-informed answers.

We've found some common ground! Good.
posted by zoogleplex at 10:54 PM on May 21, 2007


Not to get all airy-fairy here or anything, but actual artists don't need incentives to create new works. They just...do. 'Cause that's kind of an artist's job.

Sure. An artist may create even without monetary incentives; many do (see: fanfiction). If they can't make a living at it, though, (which copyright law is designed to help with) then they'll have to make a living at something else1, severely limiting the actual time and energy they have for their art.

Besides, if you know that someone can just take your work, profit off of it, and possibly claim it as their own--without giving you anything in return--then there's less incentive to actually share it with the world.

Artists are people, too.

1Unless they're already rich.
posted by Many bubbles at 1:06 AM on May 22, 2007


Bligh, et al --

Put simply, everybody wants to get paid. When it comes to the creation of art -- in any medium -- the reality is, most people don't get paid. Or anyway, not much. It's not like we have fanfiction writers on one side and guys who make millions of dollars selling their airport novels to Hollywood on the other and no one in between. Damn near everyone is in between. You do it because you want to, or you don't do it at all -- this isn't romantic, this is practical. If you're in the arts because you think it's gonna make you rich, you're a fucking moron. Get an MBA.

Besides, if you know that someone can just take your work, profit off of it, and possibly claim it as their own--without giving you anything in return--then there's less incentive to actually share it with the world.

And do what with it instead? There might be less incentive for the Michael Bays of the world to make movies, sure. Man, that'd suck!
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:59 AM on May 22, 2007


You do it because you want to, or you don't do it at all -- this isn't romantic, this is practical.

Same with being a theoretical physicist, but not one suggests that if they didn't get paid, we would still have lots of physics research, do they?

People "just do" lots of things in part because they can sustain themselves doing what they want to do. Just because people don't do something purely for money doesn't mean that they would still spend all their time doing that if they weren't paid.
posted by deanc at 7:05 AM on May 22, 2007


Okay, but the number of people in the arts right now who provide for themselves solely on the basis of their art is really pretty small. "Art for art's sake" is not a theoretical notion; it's how most artists, in any medium, actually live. Not because they're pure and noble beings who care nothing for money, but because most people's art just doesn't make any money.

In any event, this is all pretty far afield from the Helprin article. Arguing for copyright limitations is not the same thing as arguing for the absolute abolition of copyright. I think life of the author is perfectly reasonable. I don't see a need to pay out royalties to zombie artists or their greedy estates, be those estates actual people who are sponging off the works of their forebears or entire corporations who are doing the same. (I don't know that I'm quite of the 100% inheritance tax opinion expressed above, but I can't say I think it's exactly a bad idea.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:56 AM on May 22, 2007


If they can't make a living at it, though, (which copyright law is designed to help with) then they'll have to make a living at something else, severely limiting the actual time and energy they have for their art.

it's not that severe a limit ... and how many poets make a living from their art? ... most writers do not make enough money from their art to quit their day job ... many musicians play music on the weekends and nights and haven't quit their day job yet

tolkien, chaucer, james joyce, franz kafka, and every poet you can name all had other jobs to fall back on

surely you're not trying to say that today's artists should have higher expectations than they did

the truth is, you make time or energy for it or it doesn't get done

If you're in the arts because you think it's gonna make you rich, you're a fucking moron.

amen to that ... and it's my experience that blockage and having a screwed up personal life are things that are far more deadly to an artist's output than having to work at something else for a living
posted by pyramid termite at 8:08 AM on May 22, 2007


Wasn't this lilies-of-the-field stuff debunked by "A Room of One's Own?" Becoming a literary master just for the sheer, uncompensated hell of it is fantastic--if you have a lot of surplus money. Or a guaranteed stipend.
Otherwise, you expend enormous amounts of time and energy on non-writing work just to stay alive.

Even if Emily Dickinson wasn't supported by poetry royalties, she was supported by her family. I can't quite imagine that she'd have had as vast or accomplished an output if she'd had to bus tables ten hours a day to make ends meet.

Kafka worked a variety of dead-end jobs to stay alive. One kept him up from 8:00 PM to 6:00 AM. Another one was so dangerous that it compelled him to invent the safety helmet. He often lamented the havok that his odd and terrible hours wreaked on his writing output. (And don't forget that he hated that writing ouput so much that he ordered it burned after his death). Who knows what he would have accomplished with a little more leisure to write? Who knows how many Kafkas have quit writing completely out of economic frustration?

Compensating writers for their work will rarely make them rich. But it does defray their living expenses, and it alleviates the often tremendous opportunity costs that writing on the side can bring. And most importantly, it makes writing a more feasible and attractive avocation for the middle and lower classes. If you remove all money from literature, then the monied will dominate it.
posted by Iridic at 8:33 AM on May 22, 2007


Iridic --

I agree that bread should not be snatched from the mouths of working artists. Perpetual copyright would not, however, place bread into the mouths of working artists -- being that the current state of copyright already ensures copyright for at least the life of the author. Perpetual copyright would only serve to feed the progeny of the author, in the enormously unlikely event that anyone gave a shit about the author's work generations after his/her death.

You seem to be conflating copyright limitations with copyright dissolution. You should stop that.

Who knows what he would have accomplished with a little more leisure to write?

Fuck, who knows what I might accomplish with a little more leisure to write? Things are tough all over. It's a room of one's own, not an entire damn ivory tower.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:44 AM on May 22, 2007


Otherwise, you expend enormous amounts of time and energy on non-writing work just to stay alive.

that's life, get used to it ... just what do you think most people DO with their lives?

Kafka worked a variety of dead-end jobs to stay alive. One kept him up from 8:00 PM to 6:00 AM.

i've worked from 7 pm to 7 am at my current job

iridic, just because one can put some words together doesn't mean that one's life should be a bed of roses ... in fact, if kafka's life had been a bed of roses, i rather doubt we'd be talking about him right now

the sense of entitlement people like helprin are showing is ridiculous

Who knows how many Kafkas have quit writing completely out of economic frustration?

who knows how many preppies and trustifarians would have been kafkas if only something more unpleasant than getting their fake id pinched at a bar had happened to them?

artists only starve in garrets if they're stupid
posted by pyramid termite at 8:53 AM on May 22, 2007


You seem to be conflating copyright limitations with copyright dissolution. You should stop that.

Many apologies, kittens. I was responding to the derail involving artistic compensation and ignoring the main question of copyright. I am actually very much in favor of copyright limitations--50 years or so seems more than adequate. What my comment was rebutting was only pyramid termite's suggestion that compensation dissolution would be, in the main, a good thing.

As to that, I should clarify that I'm not arguing for automatic beds of roses or ivory towers for artists. I don't believe that writers or painters shouldn't have to dirty their hands with side jobs. I merely think that is unfair not to pay them at least a little for the fruits of their work simply because they enjoyed doing that work. To stiff them would devalue their achievements, and devalue what we as a society and as individuals gain from those achievements.

Pyramid termite, we seem to agree that entitlement in the art is a bad thing. I would also like to see a literature less dominated by preppies and trustifarians. However, we appear to have different base assumptions relating to the problem. You seem to believe that if writers received no compensation for their work, then literature would be less dominated by the idle rich. I believe the opposite.
posted by Iridic at 10:15 AM on May 22, 2007


What my comment was rebutting was only pyramid termite's suggestion that compensation dissolution would be, in the main, a good thing.

i never expressed an opinion on that ... i simply said that many people will continue to create whether they get compensated or not and that having to do something else for a living doesn't prevent them from creating ... and not being a member of the idle rich doesn't prevent them either
posted by pyramid termite at 10:26 AM on May 22, 2007


i never expressed an opinion on that ... i simply said that many people will continue to create whether they get compensated or not and that having to do something else for a living doesn't prevent them from creating ... and not being a member of the idle rich doesn't prevent them either

Sure, many people will create. The general ahistoricism of this is because in contemporary societies in developed countries we have more free-time than people in agrarian societies in days past. People have the creative impulse.

That doesn't make them artists.

Really being an artist takes a lot of time and effort. While some people can manage this while otherwise supporting themselves, most people cannot. It also usually requires some kind of training which is itself a big investment of time and effort. Without a doubt there's more potential artists with the talent, and some of those with the training, who are not productive because they have to mundanely support themselves than there are working, productive artists.

Of course people with an artistic temperment, and people with real talent, in some sense have no choice but to create. Again, that doesn't mean that they'll be productive, or create very good art, if the deck is stacked against them because they have to work as a fry-cook ten hours a day, six days a week. But my point here is that when this artistic compulsion is wedded to a claim that the creation of art is independent of economic opportunity, that "artists will create anyway, they don't do it for money", then it's an offensive argument that is either a) patronizing, or b) romantic drivel spouted by people who write fan-fiction and call themselves "artists". It's bullshit. It's insulting to real artists.

No, poets do not support themselves with their poetry in the US. That's one reason why there's such a dearth of decent poetry here. And, in any case, the few good poets we have are either academics and thus have combined their art with a more mundane profession related to it, or they are supported by someone else or have financial resources that allow them not to work (on other things than their art), or they live in near-poverty because they find some minimal mundane work that still allows them the time to write. In all cases, the poets would be better off were they paid sufficiently for their work because there was a real market for it. And, of course, there are far more potential poets with the innate talent who are not (or cannot be) academics, don't have someone supporting them or are not independently wealthy, or are willing to live in near-poverty.

Finally, my physicist example was intended to clue people in to the fact that while it's the case that many people work for the money, it's also the case that many, many other people choose their professions because it's what they want to do, what they need to do, independently from the money. Artists aren't unique in this way. And the thing is, even if that's what they really, really want to do, independent of money, it's very often the case that they can't do it if they can't support themselves doing it. This is true of artists, it's true of others. In all cases, saying that their love of their work means that economic opportunities don't matter is an insult to them and an insult to the value of the work they produce (or would produce).
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:47 PM on May 22, 2007


I suppose I will bite at the dissolution side of things, though not as an advocate of such an outcome, but simply as someone who cannot see it reasonable to expect anything other than the effective dissolution of most forms of copy control by, say, thirty years hence.

To whit, there seem to be two trends at work in the "traditional" audiovisual arts -- audio, including everything from music to books on tape, and video including everything from television programming to major hollywood films -- whose combined impact will leave meaningful enforcement intractable.

The first trend is that music, movies, and the like are moving more and more away from being treated as art in any high-minded sense -- the sort of thing for which you might put everything else aside, clear your mind of extraneous concerns, and devote great efforts to teasing out its inner meanings -- and more and more being treated like furniture and interior decoration, the sorts of things whose presence will enrich the texture of your lived experience but that are not normally ends in themselves. I cannot go to the mall, the gym, or the grocery store without being largely immersed in music; I often find myself eating out in restaurants with several televisions -- each on its own channel -- and some kind of music playing; and, for a portent of what the future holds, when my youngest child is home from college I often see him at his computer simultaneously watching a subtitled movie, flipping through a powerpoint, writing a paper, chatting with his friends, and listening to music. Regardless of one's opinion of music and film fit to be sensory wallpaper, the trend appears to be towards increasing casual integration of media playback into the everyday fabric of life, and particularly so amongst the younger generation.

The second trend is a simultaneous ease in the detailedness with which one may record one's life and the thoughtless ease with which such life-documentation is done: in my lifetime I've seen a "consumer video camera" go from fussy home film cameras to just about any premium cellphone, and seen the similar transformations in their still-image equivalents, for audio recording, and so forth. If, again, I am correct as to the proclivities of the younger generation -- snapping countless pictures of their experiences, probably taking just as many videos as soon as that becomes feasible, and sharing over the internet it with anyone and everyone -- then the use of such equipment will become more and more casual, perhaps even thoughtless, as the years go on. It's not out of the question that it might become automatic -- with the user input only to flag memorable moments for later review -- and at least a few people are investigating that at possibility at this moment (cf Gordon Bell in Scientific American.

So the conflict should be clear: on the one hand daily life is becoming ever more and more casually saturated with playback of material under some form of copyright, and on the other hand the ability to casually record ones' own life experience -- to augment one's memory with digital aids, as it were -- is increasingly going to place those playbacks of material under copyright at risk of being casually reproduced without authorization.

This conflict I cannot see working out in favor of copyright -- the technical sophistication to selectively record only permissable material or to, after the fact, cleanly isolate and remove the unauthorized materials from such digital scrapbooks strikes me as intractable-enough-to-be-impossible, and even were it tractable I cannot see it being a popular proposal to cede sovereignity over ones' (augmented) memories to some legal entity, or it being easy to rest comfortably while aware that the contents of their mementos may leave them in perpetual legal jeopardy.

At the moment this is all fairly abstract -- perhaps the most direct example I personally have is an awareness that many of my videotapes of my childrens' parties contain unauthorized reproductions of happy birthday and various other popular songs being playing on the radio, and thus ever-so-slightly exposing me to a very very tiny but still nonzero risk of some automatic penalties, were said tapes made known to the right parties and the right laws passed -- but it will become more and more concrete as recording technology becomes more and more ubiquitous, and its use more and more habitual.
posted by little miss manners at 4:03 PM on May 22, 2007


But my point here is that when this artistic compulsion is wedded to a claim that the creation of art is independent of economic opportunity, that "artists will create anyway, they don't do it for money", then it's an offensive argument that is either a) patronizing, or b) romantic drivel spouted by people who write fan-fiction and call themselves "artists". It's bullshit. It's insulting to real artists.

it's the truth, and many real examples can be provided to prove it ... of course, the insinuation that anyone who isn't making a living at art and dares to say they are a real artist is the equivalent of someone "who writes fan-fiction" and spouts "romantic drivel" is the real insult, isn't it?

and of course, they're going to be a "fry-cook" aren't they?

and of course, we have to be "clued in" to facts, don't we?

so ... how's the weather up there?
posted by pyramid termite at 9:29 PM on May 22, 2007


it's the truth, and many real examples can be provided to prove it ... of course, the insinuation that anyone who isn't making a living at art and dares to say they are a real artist is the equivalent of someone ‘who writes fan-fiction’ and spouts ’romantic drivel’ is the real insult, isn't it?

But I didn't insinuate that. I nowhere said that you have to be making a living as an artist to be a "real artist".

and of course, they're going to be a "fry-cook" aren't they?

What I said was that someone with the talent and motivation to be an artist isn't going to have time to do so working as a fry-cook ten hours a day, six days a week. I also said that a few people are lucky enough to have sufficient time to devote to their art. My point was that being an artist requires effort, devotion, and hard work. Most artists do not have the luxury of supporting themselves in a job while having enough time left to work on their art. They either have to accept near-poverty so they have enough available for their art, or they have other means, or they don't (or barely) produce.

and of course, we have to be "clued in" to facts, don't we?

Apparently so. No one—or so close to no one that it makes no difference—produces good art by "dabbling" in it. It's a profession. It requires hard work, like anything else of value. Artists may, and usually will, attempt to create when not paid for it, one way or another, but it's a severe handicap unless they otherwise have means and the time to spend on their work.

The romantics that I derided as fanfic writers are those who think that because they think themselves "artists" by avocation that art is an avocation, not a vocation, and is somehow divorced from economic reality. They are "artists" in the same sense that someone who looks at planets in their backyard telescope are "astronomers". They have a vested interest in romanticizing their hobby to the point to which they convince themselves they are, or could be, the equals of the people who actually devote their lives to their work.

Every artist I know would love to support themselves with their art because they know that not doing so means that a huge portion of their talent and energy is diverted away from it.

This romanticized notion of art is partly promulgated by the consumers of art who don't want to actually pay for it and can rationalize it with the idea that an artist is compelled to create anyway. And it's partly promulgated by dabblers who want the prestige of calling themselves artists without actually producing much of anything of value because to produce much of anything of value is, in reality, a lot of hard work they don't have time for.

Artists who understand how much hard work it is to be an artist and who would like to be able to devote that much of themselves to that work don't make a big deal out of the fact that, even in the absence of the opportunity to do so, they'll still try and they'll still create (though much less so)...because to announce that to everyone invites people to take advantage of them.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:04 PM on May 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


eb, i'm simply describing a part of reality ... people have created real art and not made a living at it and you know it ... lengthy rhetoric about "romantic notions" and arguments against things that no one has said aren't going to change that

i'm through with this
posted by pyramid termite at 10:54 PM on May 22, 2007


To carry patent to the absurd,

I believe I remember a story, perhaps on 60 minutes, of a guy whose blood killed cancer cells, and was used by a drug company (WITHOUT his permission, or with his mis-informed permission) to make a cancer drug.
Thechnically it is illegal for him to be in possession of his own blood !!

Anyone remember this ? perhaps 20 years ago.
posted by lurkernomore at 12:51 PM on June 2, 2007


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