Intellectual Property and the War for Culture

As the recent protests of SOPA and PIPA acts took place online, with major websites like Wikipedia and Boing Boing being blacked out to illustrate the implications of Internet censorship, I began to reflect on what this fight is all about. Amid all the claims that SOPA would break the Internet economy and give monopolistic control to a few select Entertainment and Media conglomerates we risk losing sight of implications that are much further-reaching.

The fight over the Internet is ultimately a fight over culture itself; who gets to tinker with it, participate in it, contribute to it, and control it – and who doesn’t. What we have is essentially a struggle over whether we will have a collaborative, participatory culture, or a passive, consumer culture.

One the one hand you have the corporations, which are the true producers of culture in our world. They have made money, and a lot of it, on producing entertainment and media content which they then distribute to us. This content they pass on to us is not something we could produce ourselves; it is too expensive, extensive or requires a host of professionally trained people in a number of different fields to get assembled properly. This media content has been, until recently, also too cumbersome to replicate. To copy a film thirty years ago meant a major undertaking and a lot of 35mm film.

Enter the Internet. With the onset of computers and digital copying, duplicating media content became effortless. And not just duplicating, but reassembling. Fans could now take apart their favorite shows or music and mix them up, assembling tributes, mash-ups and remixes, dubbing over dialogue with audio taken from other sources, or replacing it with their own recorded voices. Mothers could now film their toddler dancing to a Prince song and upload it to YouTube or share it on Facebook to the delight of their family and friends. Things which governments wished to hush up became impossible, as witnessed by amateur video shot during the Arab spring last year. Content could be duplicated and uploaded to a P2P file-sharing program or website that permitted other users to then download for themselves with zero cost and little effort.

All of this clearly frightened the media conglomerates and for a variety of reasons, the two central fears being that they would not get money for things they produced and that a population able to produce content for itself would not need to rely on giant media conglomerates to produce their culture for them. Thus, they began a concentrated campaign to quash the burgeoning Internet movement, strengthening copyright laws (in America, since 1909 all copyright law has been written by the media corporations and passed by an unquestioning Congress) and running anti-piracy ads everywhere they could. They employed entire sections of their legal departments to comb the internet for violations of copyright and send threatening letters or even sue those they thought violated their copyrights.

In short, we live in a time of war; war for culture. Who gets to control and produce what we see and watch and enjoy? Who has the right to distribute it? Who gets to touch, tinker and play with it? When anti-piracy legislation failed to stem the tide of file-sharing online, the media companies turned to technological fixes, typically called DRM (Digital Rights Management). DRM is the encryption that keeps you from hooking your iPod into more than one or two computers, that keeps you from adding to your iPhone, the code the allows your Xbox to only play things they want it to play, your Kindle from running e-book files from the Nook. DRM is why your DVD player won’t play many imported DVDs from other areas of the world. And if you try to tamper with your smart phone’s programming, or bypass the blocks on your Wii, these companies reserve the right to “brick” your device, killing it remotely without your consent or appeal, rendering it useless. The only trouble is that DRM can be easily cracked and in the face of its failure the corporations have now leaned toward a new solution to their problem; file streaming. Today many TV shows can be watched online via streaming; you don’t possess a copy of the show, but you can watch it. Such a model is inefficient, already clogging up and slowing down the Internet and emphasizes access, not ownership.

This raises a bigger question, one that must be answered before we can deal with the conflict over culture in our world. What is culture and how is it made? The struggle is between two ideas of culture. On the one hand you have the media conglomerates who want a culture where the people are passive consumers, receiving but not contributing to culture without permission, a culture where everyone pays for access but never owns anything. Such a culture is built around favoring the conglomerates and their profit margins. Such a culture is a do-not-touch culture, like a model house you can look at but not play in. Such a culture is a PDF culture, a “read-only” culture.

On the other hand you have the Internet and digital culture where ordinary people are empowered to be their own producers, where they are encouraged to interact with, mash-up, and be creative, active collaborators to their culture and environment. This is a sharing culture, a fan fiction, fan film culture where the misfits and the ordinary can contribute to the growth and development of our culture, where we can be producers and not just consumers. In short, this vision of culture is a “read-write” culture, a remix culture which allows the freedom for a genuine folk culture to develop once again.

Which vision comes closer to actual culture? As Christians we must begin with Scripture. In Scripture, life is imitation, copying. We are called to imitate (or copy) Christ (John 13:15) and the apostles who imitate Christ (2 Thess 3:7,9; Heb. 13:7; ); Christ is himself the very imitation or copy of the Father (Heb. 1:3). We reproduce by making copies (Gen. 5:3), imitating or copying God in the creation (Gen. 1:26). Trinitarian life is imitation, is copying, as each member of the Trinity copies the others (John 12:49; 16:13). Trinitarian life is collaborative, a sharing culture within the Godhead. This collaborative, sharing culture within the Trinity is then imitated (copied) in the creation as God shares His book, His knowledge for free with everyone. He discourages us to hide what we create under a bushel, locking it away where it cannot benefit the community (Matt. 5:15) and condemns a servant for protecting and hoarding his talent rather than using it (Matt. 25:23-27). God wrote the DNA of all things and shares it, allowing us to tinker and fiddle, explore and built new things out of what He originally made. Triune life is the ultimate source of open source, the origin for all remixing, the life, the personality, the glory that we are to imitate and copy in our own lives. In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church tried to lock up God’s word by requiring it to be read and translated only in Latin, which even many of the clergy could not read. The Protestant Reformation’s greatest act was to free the Bible from such control by translating it freely into ordinary language, something akin to releasing an open source computer operating system. Ever since the Reformation, the Bible has been the world’s number one bestseller, making more money than any other book in history.

Cultural creations cannot be owned in the way property can be owned. When you own property, I cannot copy your land. Culture is the expression of ideas, and ideas cannot be owned. If you invent a shovel, I cannot now forget that there exists a shovel. If you write a piece of music, I cannot forget it; if you paint a picture or write a book or make a film I cannot forget it. It will be internalized and processed by my brain, and now I cannot help but live my life in the light of what I have seen and experienced. All cultural activity is imitation and copying of what has come before; all culture is collaborative and sharing culture, because that is the way the brain is built; all culture is, in short, remix culture. By penalizing people for interacting and remixing cultural creations, we are essentially criminalizing culture itself, hindering its growth, and prosecuting the love of neighbor that Christ commanded. When a young mother is sued for uploading a video of her toddler dancing to Prince; when a fan is threatened for cutting together a video of his favorite moments of his favorite show, film or game; when young people are criminalized for sharing what they love, we are in essence outlawing culture itself. We are outlawing the Trinitarian God who made us that way.

  2 comments for “Intellectual Property and the War for Culture

  1. May 15, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    well, divide and multiply might be in order here.. if there truly is a commons of which we are all part, or if there is a common good, the answer for land for instance is to divide and redevelop one piece into two one house into condos, etc. what if intellectual property could (and does) become and aspect of itself, ever-evolving, constantly changing like music played live on stage every night. maybe being in the moment is in order here, as opposed to “living in the past”, a phrase coined by the magical jethro tull… what was one man’s idea yesterday is our reality today. – psp

  2. May 9, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    This is the best opinion about the issues surrounding the intellectual property debate that I have ever seen. I think a lot of writers may tend toward stricter control of intellectual copyright, rightly understanding that an artist should be able to benefit from his or her work. But no artist can or should control what the culture does with the work — certainly no corporation has any moral right to control the flow of ideas.

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