Copyrights And Copywrongs: The Rise Of Intellectual Property And How It Threatens Creativity, by Siva Vaidyanathan
Although the author has a somewhat different view of intellectual property rights than I do, arguing for thin copyright protection where I would support a labor-based view of property rights that would include rights for those who labor to make subsidiary creations based on the creations of others, there is a broad deal of overlap and I was able to greatly enjoy this book and share the author’s concerns that many corporate intellectual property holders have a rentier mentality and seek to gain perpetual copyright on their property to avoid adding to what is in the public domain. Given the fact that the author and I have similar concerns, this book was refreshing in the way that it looked at the history of law involving creations and their legal protection, pointing out the balance of concerns between allowing for some profit to original creators while also increasing what is in the public sphere to allow for the further creativity of others in such diverse areas as low-cost classic books for readers and sampling rights for rap musicians to signify over, all matters that have been threatened due to the decline of the public space of community that has taken place since the beginning of the 20th century.
This short book of about 200 pages is divided into five chapters and provides a history of copyright law as well as a rallying cry for those who are opposed to its abuse by the heirs and corporate holders of rights that originally belonged to creators. After acknowledgments and an introduction, the author begins with a look at copyright and American culture and the issues of ideas, expressions, and democracy (1). After this the author moves to a discussion of Mark Twain and his complex views on literary copyrights over the course of his career and his largely European perspective as he got older and more copyright-rich (2). After that the author moves to questions of copyright and derivative works and their lack of current protection, which demonstrates how a single chair was capable of delaying the release of the film 12 Monkeys and how Nabokov’s son was able to fight the release of Lo’s Diary (3). The author then turns his attention to jazz and rap and the problem of copyright as it relates to music, spending a great deal of time examining self-plagiarism as well as sampling issues (4). The book then ends with a chapter on the digital moment and its threat to copyrights (5) as well as the summer without Martha Graham that resulted from disputes over the ownership of her choreography.
Overall there is a great deal to celebrate about this particular book, not least the way that the author is able to wrestle with questions about the value that is gained to a society when existing creations can be reconceptualized and used as the foundation for the creativity of others. The author also shows the striking difference in behavior among many people (and companies) from when they are copyright poor, seeking to exploit that which is in the public domain that can be freely used and adapted, and when they are copyright rich seeking to protect the income that comes from their precious “property.” Crucially, the author argues that viewing copyrights as signifying intellectual property at all is mistaken because a copyright amounts to a government-offered privilege for a temporary monopoly of profits off of one’s creations as a way of spurring creation rather than punishing downstream or derivative works that require the monopoly be temporary, something that is being increasingly threatened by the behavior of the contemporary rentier class.