Avast ye, Google

Pirate Bay trial ends in a guilty verdict, after the prosecution dropped half the original charges and rephrased the remainder to fit in with an understanding of how the site actually worked. It’s a qualified victory for the music industry, and the comment from the International Federation Of The Phonographic Industry (“It would have been very difficult to put on a brave face if we had lost, but this verdict sends a strong educational and deterrent message”) is wringing with relief. Guardian blogger Jack Schofield wonders if Google will be next, and is quite keen that it is: “Still, it would be interesting to see Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt jailed as well.”

There’s quite a high-powered crowd of media people who seem to share Schofield’s interest:

Rupert Murdoch accused Google in a speech of “stealing copyrights.” Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Robert Thomson called Google and other aggregators “parasites or tapeworms,” charging Google and other unnamed aggregators with the crime of “encouraging promiscuity” (managing to combine fear of Google and fear of sex, in what could be a model platform for the Republican Party in 2010).

The Big Money, Death a la carte

For people who publish the news, Murdoch and Thomson don’t seem to read an awful lot of it: the track record of efforts to prosecute the sharing of copyrighted information is supremely lousy. Taking down file-sharing individuals and facilitating websites hasn’t stopped other individuals and new websites from using the same technology (and more ferociously), and since text is even easier to copy and transmit than music and movies, it’s even less likely that squeezing a search engine will have any permanent effect.

And what about that “educational message” the IFPI was so pleased with? The hope of copyright holders is to teach their potential audience that everything they read, see or hear has to be paid for: it’s an incredibly mean message and one that’s totally opposed to the nature of culture and information. Like almost everyone, I’ve exchanged CDs and mixtapes, loaned books and DVDs, shared newspapers – because when something is exciting or important, you want to share it. There’s an obvious quantitative difference in digital reproduction, but qualitatively, it feels like sharing and not stealing. By trying to stick a price on everything, copyright holders risk sucking the value out of their own product.

Copyright kills

Copyright kills innovation (via No Rock And Roll Fun). During my masters in 2005, we had a tutorial about digital publishing and one of the texts for the class was this 1999 article by John Sutherland. After some descriptions of sharp practice by academic publishers, Sutherland gets down to the meat of what’s bothering him: the LRB, the TLS and the Guardian have all started republishing his work digitally, without paying a further fee. I don’t remember there being much sympathy for Sutherland among the aspiring young academics in the room. For one thing, I think most of us would have accepted publication on much worse terms than Sutherland was getting, and happily. For another, Sutherland’s distinction between the online and paper versions of a journal seemed absurd: the Guardian is the Guardian, whether it’s published in paper and ink or zeroes and ones. And lastly, I thought at the time of the seminar that there was something rather greedy about expecting to be paid in perpetuity for any piece of work. Sutherland’s final flourish in the article felt unearned:

One has to weigh advantages. The growth of databases and electronic archives is something to be encouraged. On the other hand, it would be unnatural not to feel alarmed at the commercial stranglehold which their creation permits. […] Freelance authors, as the romantic name for them implies, are less constrained than employees. Subservience is as corrosive in journalism as it is in academic research. Freedoms of thought and expression are at risk. Is this a price worth paying for the new conveniences of knowledge?

As students, the benefits of accessible knowledge were pretty obvious to us; the dangers of John Sutherland feeling “subservient”, not so much. After all, if knowledge isn’t accessible, it doesn’t matter how excellent it is. And as someone now trying to make money from writing, I’m more frustrated by my work being held offline than I am by the idea that there are people reading my words for free: I want to be able to use earlier work to advertise myself for new jobs, and I can’t do that through a convenient website when the publisher owns the copyright. I’m not denying that there’s a case for copyright, but the difference between my feelings and those expressed by Sutherland is that I expect being a writer to involve, you know, writing – rather than ticking along on the royalties from past work.

Paperhouse goes to see: © Murakami

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Eyes right: Paperhouse just got a copyright notice. It’s all part of the steely new work ethic around here, and it’s there out of necessity (if I write for a living, I need to make at least a token effort to hold on to my assets) rather than desire. I’m not, in general, all that keen on copyright as it’s currently enforced. The laws on intellectual property feel badly out of kilter with the instant, no-cost systems of distribution available to every internet user. I don’t expect to be able to control how my words get shared – the most I hope for is that I’ll get credit where my work appears and a reasonable share of any profits deriving from those appearances. And as the interest in and profit deriving from old reviews of provincial theatre are pretty minimal, I don’t spend that much time fretting over my literary estate.

So last year when I went to see © Murakami at the Brooklyn Museum, I went as a bit of a © apostate. Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami’s Murakami’s big idea is the ‘Super Flat’ aesthetic. His work goes across the distinctions between high and low culture, turning anime figures into gallery pieces and gallery pieces into mass-produced products. The idea has a democratic ring to it at first, founded on the idea that Japan has no hierarchy of high and low culture: the romantic insistence that art be shielded from commerce is alien.

Murakami’s work is gaudy, exhuberant, polished, piss-taking. The retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum dedicated the best part of an entire floor to him, whole rooms dedicated to the playing out of one theme of his canon. The imposing, glossy fibreglass figures – mostly involved in some sort of winking eroticism. The freakishish romper-suited double act, Kaikai and Kiki. And the charismatic and adaptable Mr DOB, who appears in pastiches of pretty much every genre of art you can imagine.

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(Photo from Tingley’s flickr stream.) Murakami’s able to make a lot of art because, like any business-minded creator, he has an art factory: the Kaikai Kiki company, based in Tokyo and New York, produces, dictributes, promotes and manages the Murakami output. Which is where the © comes in to it. The work is Murakami’s, not because he made it, but because he originated it. The artistry is in the cultivation of the brand as imuch as the craftsmanship of the pieces. And that’s why it makes perfect sense that the centrepiece of the exhibition was a shop dedicated to Murakami’s LV collaboration, selling luxury handbags and silk scarves that floated over the upper reaches of affordability.

In Super Flat style, there was a second shop at the end vending the lower-order souvenirs: Mr DOB plushes, latex miniatures of the sculptures, cotton (rather than silk) scarves. Because Super Flat isn’t actually flat at all. The shock of seeing the rare rendered as ready-made and the pornographic mixing with the prestigious depends on the viewer hanging on to those distinctions in their own mind. Super Flat obviously doesn’t render all levels of culture equivalent, it delineates the markets and fits its product to the price point. The masterwork is making the reproducibility of the art part of its genius, so the hordes of clones add to the value rather than diluting it.

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Obviously, I loved it and I bought scarf.