Using ‘Good Causes’ to Justify Our Greedy and Out of Control Copyright System

Anne FrankI think we are all in agreement that if Anne Frank had not believed that her diary would be protected for 95 years, well, she never would have written it. Right! I mean, that’s what writing is all about: making as much money as you possibly can for as many years after your death as possible. Because it isn’t even really about you or your family. It’s about the corporation that owns your work. The last thing you would want is for your work to be widely and freely available. Let’s not forget: the world changes a lot faster than it used to, so copyright needs to be a lot longer.

Wait. That doesn’t make sense, does it? I mean, the song “Yesterday” is really old. In any reasonable sense of the term, it is in the public domain. It doesn’t really belong to anyone. Certainly if it had been written in 1865 instead of 1965, it would have been well out of copyright fifty years later. And that was when times were slower. It made more sense. It might take decades to get the whole world humming “Yesterday.” In 1965, it took a couple of months. Today, it takes a couple of hours. Yet copyright length is more than twice as long as it was in 1865.

I started with Frank’s work, because two weeks ago, Michael Hiltzik wrote, The Squabble Over Anne Frank’s Diary Shows the Absurdity of Copyright Law. The Anne Frank Fonds owns the copyright to the diary. It is now 70 years after the murder of Anne Frank. According to the law in Europe, the diary should be in the public domain this January. But Fonds is having none of that! This is because they claim that her father, Otto Frank, is the co-author. He died 1980. Thus, we must wait until 2050 at the earliest for the book to belong to the people.

It turns out that the Anne Frank Fonds does a lot of good work with the money that it makes. But what it is doing with its copyrights is exactly the same as what any other soulless corporation is doing. The most recent US copyright law — the Sonny Bono Act — increased copyright to 95 years. As Hiltzik put it:

The act wasn’t aimed at encouraging artistic expression, [Arizona State law professor Dennis] Karjala says. It was pushed by corporate entities such as the Walt Disney Co, which would soon lose rights to the earliest films featuring Mickey Mouse. “They were all concerned about the cutoff of the royalty spigot,” Karjala says.

It’s just a corporate game. When I last wrote to Dean Baker about Fantasia not being in the public domain, he said, “It’s all about Mickey Mouse (literally).” Indeed it is. Oh, the money that would be lost to a bunch of people who have never had a creative idea outside the realm of finance in their lives! The truth is that I’m sure that the Anne Frank Fonds would get along just fine without the copyright to the diary. And I’m sure that the MLK family would get along just fine with the copyright to his “I Have a Dream” speech.

But these are the “good causes” that are trotted out to justify a totally out of control copyright system — one that does nothing to encourage writing and a great deal to harm it.

Divided Nation in More Ways than One

Inland Regional CenterI am painfully aware of stereotypes. That doesn’t mean that I am immune to them. But I have no doubt that I am far more immune to them than the vast majority of people I interact with. So whenever I hear of a horrible crime, I always hope that the perpetrator is a white man (or woman, but that’s generally too much to ask for). When a murder suspect’s face is shown on the local news and it is black, I’m saddened. And I spent much of yesterday hoping that the San Bernardino shootings were a bunch of white guys who wanted to play at war.

It doesn’t matter to the victims. But it does matter to the society. And watching the reactions yesterday, I see we are a society cleaved in half. The liberal world was focused on guns and the easy access to them. It is an important issue. But we liberals have a real problem here. Events like this would not be stopped by any of the “common sense” gun control laws that the Democratic Party would propose. The difference on gun control between Bernie Sanders at his most conservative and Hillary Clinton at her most liberal is basically nothing. And it certainly isn’t anything that would have stopped yesterday.

But there are roughly 30 gun murders every day in the US — and twice as many gun suicides. But sadly, that is “dog bites man.” The news doesn’t care. Good God! The news doesn’t even care when shooting sprees don’t end in large numbers of dead. Every day is a good day to talk about gun violence. But if you do, there won’t be anyone listening to you. This is bad news for liberals. There is no time when anyone will listen to a discussion of the real problem. And even if they did, very few in America are open to what would need to be done to address it.

On the conservative side of things, everyone was talking terrorism. God, how I’ve come to hate that word! It’s just the newest racist word that anyone can use without being called on it. We pasty white Americans can’t use the n-word, but we sure can use the t-word. And do we ever! I heard someone talking about nuking ISIS. I guess that’s the new, “Fight ’em over there so we don’t have to fight ’em here.” Except that it is exactly the opposite.

Let’s suppose that these three mass murderers were aligned with ISIS. Let’s further suppose we could wipe out ISIS central command with nukes. Would this really cause resentful Muslims all over the world to just calm down? I don’t think so! I think doing something like that would greatly increase the number of attacks here at home. Nuking them would seem kind of like a trick — an unfair way of winning. Far better to show that ISIS is impotent in the normal ways of war. (It’s also true that the use of nukes wouldn’t be any better at defeating ISIS; it would just be better at killing more civilians.)

Martin Longman noted something really depressing:

I have to say that the news out of San Bernadino is about the worst possible for pious American Muslims who go to work everyday, get along with their co-workers, and don’t cause any problems of any kind. It’s not great news for Muslim American women, either.

Basically, this shooting is perfectly designed to make people lose their minds in fear around Muslims.

I guess that’s probably the point…

This has been the working theory of terrorist attacks in Europe: make the wider population hate the Muslim community. In so doing, give Muslims who just want to live their lives a very good excuse to lash out. In other words, manipulate the non-Muslim community into starting a war. It’s a brilliant strategy. It depends upon stereotypes and they are very dependable.

All Indians walk in single file; at least the only one I ever saw did; so let’s nuke ’em.

Morning Music: Sleep of the Just

King of America - Elvis CostelloThis week of Elvis Costello is truly random. It’s just whatever comes into my mind. Everyone seems to have a soundtrack for their lives, and Costello is certainly a big part of mine. One such song is off King of America, “Sleep of the Just.” I’d never heard that phrase before I heard it in the song, but it is so clear. As Oxford puts it, “A deep, untroubled sleep.” It is something I don’t ever recall having.

I have a vague memory of seeing Costello do the song live in San Jose around that time — 1986. I think it was the Blood & Chocolate tour. Nick Lowe opened for him. Costello did two sets: one on guitar and one (rather silly) on piano. And for an encore, he did “I Want You” with even more intensity than he performed it on the album.

Regardless, lyrically the song is opaque. There are some things that are fairly clear. There is a brother and sister. The brother is in the army and the sister is a pinup girl. The brother is ashamed to have his fellow soldiers ogling his sister. What’s so frustrating about the song is that he plays around with point of view in a most careless way. But I’ll still give it my own narrative.

The singer has a confrontation with a soldier in a bar. The guy’s a jerk, but nothing comes of it. The next day, the singer is on a bus (Tour bus?) and it breaks down, so he has to spend the night there. He meets and sleeps with a young woman. He imagines that she is the sister of the soldier. And the final verse is his imagining of what the sister is imagining. Or not. I’m more interested in it from a formal standpoint.

Costello couldn’t help but throw in a little reference to Madonna, although I think it’s awkward. I think he means it as in, “Is it immaterial, girl?” And not, “Is it immaterial girl?” It is, in fact, immaterial given that all women are some mother’s daughter. But ultimately, we all need, and I dare say deserve, the sleep of the just.

Afterword

For all you Costello fans, I just found this set of acoustic demos for the album: King Of America Demos.