Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Freedom of Ideas: Copyright's Negligible Impact on the History of Writing

I am rereading John Perry Barlow's seminal The Economy of Ideas, and I cannot help but be struck by the almost backward orientation of his take on history as it applies to intellectual monopolies. While Barlow has always been considered an advocate of Freedom on the Internet -- and I certainly so consider him -- The Economy of Ideas is written with the implicit assumption -- that Jefferson did not make in the quote Barlow supplies -- that copyrighted works are a form of property and that the Internet is changing something that has always been true. Neither of these assumptions are correct, and as I hope to show, neither of these assumptions could occur outside of the context of Western European culture.

The passage that starts this off is:

Notions of property, value, ownership, and the nature of wealth itself are changing more fundamentally than at any time since the Sumerians first poked cuneiform into wet clay and called it stored grain. Only a very few people are aware of the enormity of this shift and fewer of them are lawyers or public officials. [Empasis mine.]

It is curious that Barlow would bring up the subject of the Sumerians without realising the obvious contradiction to his industrial revolution fashioned mentality. Before I continue, I think it only fair to point out that we are all victims of the tyrannical reign of the newspaper and its ability to replace knowledge with absolute rubbish, to exchange noise for truth. News agencies have a vested interest in making us believe in the "intellectual property" myth, and few people in any modern, urban area can claim to have avoided entirely the use of the term "intellectual property", one of the greatest fictions of our epoch. So, I do not fault Barlow for this point of view as it was more or less forced upon him by our culture.

Curiouser and Curiouser

The reason Barlow's statement is curious is due to the obvious fact that the Sumerians, themselves, had no copyright and no notion remotely resembling it. A quick search on the Internet reveals that Sumer's cuneiform writing system was developed sometime around 3500BC. Further, "proto-writing" goes back in Mesopotamia, in the Indus river basin, and in China to about 6000BC. Writing has been around quite some time.

On the other hand, we have copyright. The first official copyright law, the Statute of Anne, was passed into law in 1710. Copyright, an infant in the history of writing, will reach its 300th birthday next year. Cuneiform, however, is more than 5,000 years old. Copyright, therefore, is not the norm, but the exception in the history of writing. In fact, it hardly qualifies as a blip.

During all this time, ideas were not considered a form of "property". Word were words -- written or unwritten. In ancient times, people were more likely to believe that mountains could be moved than that ideas could be "owned". English culture -- the one that invented the concept of copyright -- would not grace the world with its presence for another 4,000 years or so. Thus, ideas were not property, and the culture that thought they could be had not formed yet.

Ancient Cultures: Slightly More Depth

In places such as China, which invented paper, and printing, and combined to two to create paper money, this idea never occurred to anyone. This is even though China was printing books as early as 100AD. Printing was also cheaper in China. The printing technology used made it possible for any jerk with a piece of wood and a chisel to print thousands of copies of any text within a few hours. By the Song Dynasty (960–1279AD), 20th or at least 19th Century levels of printing in the Western cultural sphere were being carried out in China. This information exchange helped to create an economy so large that it was not surpassed by Western Europe until 1750 or so. Still, copyright was never dreamed up in Chinese culture.

The Sumerians, I was once told by a curator at a museum I worked for, were very prolific writers. They left behind, literally, tons of clay tablets containing writing of all sorts. Personal notes, shopping lists, rules for servants, and just about any other conceivable thing -- well, conceivable to them, anyway -- was written down. They wrote for thousands of years and passed their system down to subsequent civilisations. They did all this writing without any copyright to support it.

What Does This Mean to the Modern Reader?

All of these works of the ancient world would have been subject to current copyright. They were all -- every single one -- "fixed and in tangible form". They were all "new works".

But, they were also all speech. No one, before the English, would have thought to draw fences around words for profit. None of these people in the ancient world would have thought to call their words "property". Not even the monarchs. There might have been suppression of things one could say, but this was not for money or gold.

Therefore, the Internet is causing a change in the way we view things, but it is not the change that Barlow suggests. The idea of copyright is a very recent one, the idea of "intellectual property" more recent still. This hopefully short lived experiment with bottling information has failed miserably, and we are all -- everyone on planet Earth -- suffering from it. The Internet is not ushering in a new era so much as demonstrating clearly what has been taken from us over the last three centuries. Ideas are like air. We all depend upon them, and we all have a natural, inalienable right to access and process them. It is time to cut off our charity to the greedy, ungrateful publishers before they use our generously given funds to create more hardship for us.

Monday, November 10, 2008

First Post: Multiple Translations

It is time, I suppose, for me to get swept into the blogoshpere. I have long posted comments about copyright on various websites and my project page, but now it is time to make it a more regular event and to collect everything in a convenient place. I thought I should start on a positive note -- which upon the subject of copyright is difficult at best. So, without further ado, here goes:

I have been doing something recently which has given me a great amount of pleasure but will not be repeated frequently -- or perhaps ever -- because of copyright. When the remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth came out, I thought I should go to the trouble of reading the book (I saw the older movie a long time ago and therefore am familiar with the story). Jules Verne is without a doubt an interesting author. He was one of the founders of western science fiction and a singularly imaginative person. His books have enough suspense and unexpected, even miraculous, events that all but the most die hard action junkies should be entertained. If that were not enough, his books are also an excellent source of information about how the world appeared through the eyes of a 19th Century western scientist.

Hollywood rarely, if ever, depicts faithfully an author's original story, so reading the book would also give me the only complete picture of this seminal bedrock of modern culture. I could not read the original, though, because I do not read French. Thereupon, I turned my search to Project Gutenberg to find the English translation of this famous work. This would be the closest I could get to the original without years of study in a language for which I have no interest.

This is where Project Gutenberg surprised me.

There was not one translation of the work. . . There were two! Project Gutenberg frequently has multiple editions or scans of works with cosmetic differences. But multiple translations of the same work? And these two translations had separate titles: A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and A Journey to the Interior of the Earth.

At first, I thought I should choose one, so I decided to read the first chapter or two of each and discover which I liked best. I quickly noticed quite a great deal of discrepancy between the two. In fact, it existed to a shocking degree. Even the narrator's uncle, second only to the narrator in importance, had two different names. He was Professor Hardwigg in one and Professor Lidenbrock in the other. One would think a central character of a narrative would have only one, easily copiable, name in the original work (it is not as if the book were written in a non-Latin character set).

This massive gulf, not merely the result of simple word choices, led me to become hooked on both versions. I was captured by a new form of suspense: How well did each author appear to translate the story, and which did I think was the more faithful translation (I had no idea, of course, but speculation is always fun ;-). I began to read both books concurrently, reading a chapter of one and then the other -- trying my best to keep them matched up (the translators even separated the chapters in different places).

The resulting adventure has been one of the most enjoyable experiences I have ever had with literature, and it taught me not a little about the art of translation and its power to alter the ideas in a work. There is no longer a doubt in my mind that a translation is an original work, a shadow approximating the shape of the original but powerless to represent the fine, multitudinous details of the irradiated body. Each translator had distinct styles, and I continually had to assess which version seemed more faithful. I have read other translations of Verne's works, so I already had an impression of his "voice", but this gave me two versions of each statement to analyze. It was an expedition every bit as trying as the story itself. I quite thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it.

Yet, alas, I am unlikely to have this experience again. One might ask why, of course, but the answer should already be completely obvious. I, true to form as always, must blame this (correctly, I should add) upon the crooked shoulders of that rancid body of law called copyright.

In any country that falls under the influence of the Berne Convention -- and that is most these days with spectres like WIPO around to make all of our lives miserable and dark -- translations are now firmly within the bounds of "derivative works". This means translations can be controlled by the author of the original story. Very few, if any, authors are going to "authorize" multiple translations of their works. The financial incentives are against it, and even if they were not, the author of the first translation, who is certain to be in a financial relationship with the author or his publisher, will resist losing his monopoly to any sort of competiton (it is that nasty Free Market the monoplist publishers hate again).

There will be no alternate translations. One might go to the time and effort to translate a work free of charge, but who would do so in order to get sued? Who would pay the author for the privilege? This rules out wiki style translations as well.

For Public Domain works, this is not the case. The 道德經 Dao De Jing may have been translated more than 100 times into English. Nearly all the Greek classics have been translated into English. There are probably endless examples of ancient works with multiple translations. Copyright has virtually eliminated this for new works, however, and Disney and its cabal of wicked publishers and their lobbyists are close to damming up the remaining trickle into the Public Domain. Great works of the last 50 years have official translations and nothing else. Opinions on what an author might have meant are limited to one per work, one interpretation, one point of view. This is truly a great loss.

This inhibits cross-cultural understanding, deprives students of valuable information, and constrains the growth and depth of world culture. By making "derivative works" into extensions of a copyright holder's privilege over information, the authors of the Berne Convention have taken something from everybody, and every legal system and law maker that endorses this theft of speech, this censorship of potential ideas is culpable.

I honestly hope that some day, I can live in a world where speech is Free, and no one has to ask the author of a work before providing the service of translation to everybody. I want everybody to be able to have the kind of experience I am enjoying so thoroughly. The words in books, the speech recorded, should be Free of restrictions, charge being only one, for everybody to use and learn from and -- very significantly -- add to.

When speaking to friends and relatives, no one thinks of putting a price on their speech or restricting who repeated it. In fact, most people feel rather proud when their statements are repeated by others -- especially others who they esteem. But when the same speech is recorded, the game suddenly changes. Speech suddenly gets hijacked into the realm of personal property. Many people would claim to "own" their speech even after they have sold it to others.

Copyright, therefore, has become a from of privatized censorship, a system by which Free Speech is limited without the government taking responsibility.

I believe that this is not only immoral, but criminal, and in the United States, certainly unconstitutional. Free Speech is the foundation of Freedom and Free Societies. Free Speech in western culture has been under constant assault since the Constitution of the United States so completely altered it and toppled the majority of European monarchies. One method of attack has been to restrict speech not by censorship, but by ownership. Tying speech to monetary value restricts the dissemination of ideas and places the power of information distribution in the hands of wealthy parties.

Because of this, I am going to entitle this collection of my speech Stealing Speech: A Commentary on the Long History of Publishers' Attempts to Restrict Free Speech. It is my sincere wish everyone who happens upon this collection of speech is entertained as well as enlightened (it is also my sincere wish that I actually have something enlightening to say ;-), and if you are reading this I hope you will regularly contribute your opinions.