Sunday, May 25, 2014
Mysteries of "intellectual" property revealed
campus colloquium on The Free Speech Movement,
U.C. Berkeley, fall 1964
The plot thickens on the shutdown of my lecture on the "Qatsi" films of Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass and the influence of Jacques Ellul upon their themes, a little talk scheduled for the conference of the Jacques Ellul Society at Carleton University this July.
The messages from the university spokespersons have gotten increasingly stern, schooling me on the fine points of intellectual property practice in Canada nowadays. Below in total anonymity once again are the latest messages to me with other identifying information deleted as well. None of the writers has asked for confidentiality on the content of the messages and their names will not be part of anything I write about this debacle. Actually, they are all very fine people and I don't blame them for what's happened.
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[message from pseudonym "Fred" mentioned in previous post]
Dear .... If you read the law it is designed for creators...not just writers. Below is what the university has to say. Also, your interpretation of the writing situation isn't quite correct. Canadian copyright includes provisions concerning moral rights which aren’t concerned with lost revenue...but the right of a creator to have some control over where the creator’s work is used. As I understand it, this is one difference between Canada and the US. I demand that all my authors who use another author's work [quotes etc.] get permissions. What is interesting are the few cases where they are refused permission to use the work even if they are willing to pay. This typically occurs when one poet uses a small bit of another's work as an epigraph. I’m sorry that this is upsetting to folks. This may be an issue of free speech, or it may be an issue of a creator’s right to have control of his/her work. If the person who wants to use the work knows the creator, as in this case, then there shouldn’t be any problem since the creator will give permission, no doubt. Moral rights may seem silly, but I know that many of my poets wouldn’t like to see bits of their poems on porn sites…even if the site host would pay. .... Perhaps your suggestion is best, [name]... to just shift responsibility to you. This would require that the conference rather than [university unit X] be the host for the talk. Hopefully, my obviously absurd affronts and incompetence [in asking a simple question] won’t prevent Langdon from attending. .... Sorry about all the difficulties.
[message from another campus person the email writers consulted]
Generally guest speakers are responsible for clearing the copyright of what they present. I can give you some general information about copyright. One of the questions here would be the length of the film clips, and to ensure that no digital locks were broken in creating the clips.
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Well, there you have it, folks. Under the circumstances, I WON'T be going to Ottawa to give my talk. A lawyer friend and expert in the wiles of IP has now warned me about the troubles I might be getting into. What interests me now is less the outcome of the current dispute, but something I've been wondering about for a long while, namely, the meaning of the beguiling term "intellectual property."
At this point it appears that at the national level there are legislators writing laws, bureaucrats crafting regulations, both probably responding to large corporations and trade associations that make sure their demands become part of a nation’s legal framework. I imagine that at the university level there are lawyers who oversee which activities and resources are permissible on campus, advising academic departments and research units about the complicated conditions that now inform and constrain their inquiries. At the end of the chain, I suspect, are timorous faculty required to observe the increasingly complex rituals of compliance that now comprise the center of academic life. Hence, professors dutifully advise students to probe the key questions in sciences, the humanities and social sciences of the 21st century -- questions about the liabilities, law suits, insurance policies, restraining orders, and career threatening hazards their research entails.
An imaginary dialog:
“Do I dare to eat a peach?”
“Great question, Professor Winner. Of course you’ll have to check the extensive legal implications and entanglements entailed in peach consumption or, for that matter, even talking publicly about peaches. And oh, by the way, wasn’t that “peach” line you just used taken from T.S. Eliot? His property management firm has been up in arms recently, challenging our proposed “Waste Management Systems” logo as an infringement of their global “Wasteland” trademark. They may lodge a complaint. So it’s probably wise to delete that “peach” reference altogether. It might be prudent to change your question to: Do I have the requisite authorizations to taste a small portion of an avocado without obtaining permission from the avocado producers? That might work, for a little while longer maybe."
In the months ahead I plan to do a lot more research, thinking and writing on these matters. For the moment, my simple, perhaps overly naive questions are these:
1. Is the regime of property protection now thoroughly installed in our institutions offensive to academic freedom, scholarly inquiry, political free speech, and open public debate? Answer: yes.
2. Does the current regime of property protection buttress the unequal economic and political power of corporations and the wealthy few in world societies while seriously weakening the power of possible critics of the system of Techno-capitalism? Answer: yes.
3. Were my own rights of academic freedom and political free speech undermined by the property protection measures that now govern “the life of the mind” in Canada? Answer: yes.
4. Are scholars, scientists and their students now being enlisted as thought police in today’s property protection rackets? Answer: yes.
To all of this I would only add that I’m looking forward to celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley 1964, an event that changed my life and thinking profoundly. Back then it was pressure of a ham-fisted political kind that challenged free speech and academic integrity on the university campus. Students and faculty resisted and eventually won. Today the threats are more subtle, insidious and likely more destructive in the long run. Alas, the “intellectuals” have become front line troops in the war to defend the citadels of global capital.