Culture and Copyrights

Eyeteeth has a great interview with Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of The Anarchist in the Library (which is now at the top of my “to-read” list). Vaidhyanathan discusses the ways that sharing networks–be they local communities like church groups or jam sessions or transnational structures like the Internet of global corporations–work as the medium for cultural growth and development. Legislation like the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) and the USA PATRIOT Act, by privileging corporate and government networks and network usage over local and non-commercial networks and usage, stifle creativity, innovation, and ultimately democratic participation.

The behaviors of sharing culture are what build culture. So this is a long-standing human habit. What is different is that these behaviors [copying and sharing cultural material] have been amplified and extended by the powers of digital technology and networking. We can’t deny that quantitatively we’re in a new situation, although qualitatively we are not. We’re actually behaving the way we always have.

Culture is worthless if you keep it in your house. So, yes, in that sense, this proliferation of shared culture–this proliferation of ostensibly free material–is simply the electronic simulation of what we’ve been doing in towns and villages and neighborhoods and garages and high schools all around the world for centuries.

The first battlefield in this conflict is and has been our public library system, beseiged on all sides by pay-per-use models in industry, academic journals available through electronic subscriptions plans that offer the library nothing concrete to archive or preserve, local and federal financial prerogatives that give short shrift to what is seen as a non-essential expense, dwindling acquisitions and inadequate staffing, and now the USA PATRIOT Act, the DMCA, and legislation demanding the use of web filtering software. This is where, at the moment, decisions about the kind of culture we’ll have in the future are being made.

Libraries are considered to be dangerous places and librarians are our heroes. This is something that we really have to emphasize. The library is also not just functionally important to communities all over the world, but a library itself is the embodiment of enlightenment values in all the best sense of that. A library is a temple to the notion that knowledge is not just for the elite and that access should be low cost if not free, that doors should be open. Investing in libraries monetarily, spritually, intellectually, legally is one of the best things we can do for our immediate state and for the life we hope we can build for the rest of the century.

Unfortunately, for many people, libraries are places for children and old people, not for everyone. When I check books out at my library, I often stand behind young mothers with armfuls of children’s books and not a thing for themselves. Of course, I love seeing parents taking an active role in their children’s educations and lives, but I can’t help but be saddened that, out of the thousands of books on the shelves, not one of them is seen as adding some value to their adult lives, some enjoyment or pleasure or knowledge or skill or understanding, outside of what they share with their children. That could contribute so much to their involvement with their children. And I have to wonder if they know that, behind the counter and in the offices out of sight, there are people fighting tooth and nail for their right to such enjoyment, pleasure, knowledge, skill, and understanding.

Ironically, my public library doesn’t carry The Anarchist in the Library

[Update: Not so ironically, as it turns out–I failed to notice that the release date for the book is April 2004.]

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