Copyright Reformers Do Not Advocate Plagiarism

If you are one of those folks who responds to any debate in the domain of copyright reform with one of the following responses (or some variant thereof), please cease and desist. You are revealing yourself to be a functional illiterate.

  1. Oh, so according to you, anyone should be able to take something written by an author and just rip it off, right? [I’m presuming ‘rip it off’ means ‘use without attribution.’]
  2. I should be able to take something you’ve written, change your name to mine and just sell it, right?

No. You may not. You would be a plagiarizer then. Folks advocating reforms of copyright laws–typically shorter copyright terms, more lenient understandings of the doctrine of ‘fair use‘ mainly–have never advocated plagiarism. They still don’t.

Copyright reformers do not advocate that copyright protections should not exist. They do argue, however, that these protections are sometimes extended to material that should not be copyrighted–for example the baseball statistics that are put into a particular format by an author should remain uncopyrighted while their new tabular format certainly should be; they also advocate that those terms of copyright should be limited–as originally envisaged in the US Constitution–so that the copyrighted material can serve as ‘raw material’ for other creators to build on, to modify. They also express concern that over-stringent application of copyright laws are sometimes problematic in the digital world in which we live today – one in which creative products can be more readily copied, modified, and distributed.

But they do not, ever, advocate that someone should be able to take someone else’s’ work and pass it off as their own.

This persistent misunderstanding of copyright reformers’ claims has two unsavory interpretations:

  1. Critics of copyright reformers are lazy and illiterate; they cannot read, and if they can, they cannot be bothered to read the actual claims made by copyright reformers.
  2. Critics of copyright reformers are intellectually dishonest, engaging in willful misreading in order to systematically misrepresent the reformers’ claims.

I pen this short screed today because this past Monday, my essay ‘End Intellectual Property,’ which argues that the term ‘intellectual property’ is a misleading piece of rhetorical excess and should be discarded in favor of the precise use of ‘copyrights’, ‘patents’ ‘trademarks’ and ‘trade secrets’ instead, appeared in Aeon Magazine, and almost immediately, many readers online made some version of the responses above. I’m left shaking my head. Especially as my essay included the following line:

And neither do copyright reformers argue that plagiarists be somehow rewarded; they do not advocate that anyone should be able to take a copyrighted work, put their name on it, and sell it.

‘Nuff said.

P.S: There are several other persistent misunderstandings–or willful misreadings– of copyright reformer’s claims making the rounds. As they have been for a while. Like vampires, they refuse to die. On those (‘so you think artists should not be paid for their work?’ and ‘how come your books are not made available for free?’), more anon.

Teflon Trump’s Terrifying Troops

I did not watch the Donald Trump acceptance speech last night; I did not want to run the risk of a disturbed night’s sleep. I did however, read a transcript that was available on the net before he went live. It was a terrifying read just because it was so ‘good’: pitch-perfect in its tone and content, aiming for the easily visible targets of law and order, national security, loss of jobs, economic inequality, corporate trade deals, the rigged political system. His scapegoats were perfectly picked too: immigrants, aliens, foreigners, indeed, the world ‘outside.’ Trump was not speaking off the cuff, he was reading a prepared speech, one crafted for him by his speechwriters, who distilled the most populist parts of his campaign trail message and artfully packaged it with a corrosive covering of nativism, xenophobia, and paranoia. The speech will be picked apart for its hostility and its lies but it will not matter. If the history of this campaign is any indication of things to come.

Ronald Reagan used to be called the ‘Teflon President.’ Well, let me tell you, Ronnie had nothing on the The Donald. Nothing sticks to the Trump; call him a liar, a crook, a failed businessman, a misogynist, a racist, an ignorant warmonger, it does not matter. His ‘base’ does not care–a fact that made the hoopla over the Melania Trump plagiarism non-scandal especially risible. I suspect that Trump’s followers loved the plagiarizing of Michelle Obama’s speech–‘screw them and their fancy-ass, stuck-up, elitist notions of who wrote what.’ (Besides, why not steal from someone you despise?) Indeed, every attempt to critique Trump on the basis of some conventional understanding of decency and  honesty runs afoul of this inclination on the part of his followers to merely incorporate that critique into their understanding of Trump as an iconoclast willfully denying those staid conventions that work for everyone else. His followers are the most frightening thing about him.

Many are tempted to lie and flirt with the forces of darkness to gain presidential power, to command the trillion dollar military that goes with it which lets grown men feel like pre-adolescent boys again, to strut on the world stage like the new Messiah. What those aspirants for power need to realize their dreams is the unquestioned acceptance and obedience of their followers. That Trump has. He is well aware he can lie, prevaricate, dissemble; it will not dent his chances with this crew. When the smoke clears, and if a Trump defeat is the outcome, he will slink away to book deals, speaking engagements, possibly a new television series and a talk-show. More fortunes await him. (I’m shying away from the possibility of his victory for that prospect demands another sort of response altogether.) But his followers will not rest content even then.

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. Right, well, that’s been taken care of by The Donald. The spirits have been summoned; and now they strut on the stage. Banishing them is going to take some doing.

Alan Dershowitz: A Hypocrite Grows In Brooklyn

Alan Dershowitz has long perfected the art of throwing a toddler’s tantrum  – especially in his fulminations against the academic freedom that his fellow academics and he himself enjoys. Last year, when Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler spoke at a BDS-themed event at Brooklyn College,  our esteemed academic hygienist threw a particularly epic fit. He held his breath till he turned blue, he wailed, he screamed, he kicked and flailed, he gnashed his teeth, he threatened alternately to call mommy and papa. He demanded that the speakers be ‘balanced’ by opposing counterpoints; he insisted that inviting one speaker, without inviting his or her intellectual and political antithesis, was an act of gross intellectual dishonesty. To use a pair of particularly appropriate Australianisms, he spat the dummy and threw his toys out of the pram. (My apologies to all the little ones who do so much else that justifiably provokes affection and care from us; they are more far more interesting and diverse and I daresay, nuanced, in their personalities.)  A Harvard Law professor was rapidly transformed into something far more undignified: all unsatisfied Id, no Ego, no Superego.

Long-time observers of this torture-advocating, plagiarizing, walking embarrassment to Harvard Law School–whose batting average these days has been particularly stratospheric thanks to the diligent efforts of Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz–thought they immediately detected a certain sadness, a hurt, manifested in this spectacular display of an underdeveloped psyche. Why, oh why, hadn’t Dershowitz’s alma mater, Brooklyn College, or anyone associated with it, invited him to speak at Brooklyn College? Why this rejection of its son? Why this turning away from the door? Indeed, Dershowitz himself said as much, expressing a febrile mix of disappointment and rage in his queries into the lack of a standing invitation from the Political Science department to come speak to their students – and to allow their students to see, at first-hand, how an expensive education and an Ivy League professorship are no guarantee of even a modicum of intelligence or reasoning ability.

The Greeks–or perhaps it was someone else–might have thought the gods pay no attention to our piteous bleating about our misfortunes. But such is not the case with Brooklyn College and Dershowitz. For an invitation was extended to him by a student group–the Brooklyn College Israel Club–to speak here, and so he did this past week. His talk was sponsored by four departments–including Political Science, the department that bore the brunt of his tirades the last time, and mine, Philosophy. (I voted in favor of the sponsorship decision.)

Dershowitz spoke at Brooklyn College and talked about the need for ‘nuance’, for the need for ‘balance’ in campus discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict; he criticized departments that sponsored events like the ones that so infuriated him last year. He did so alone. His only companion on stage was an empty chair. (There is no indication of whether Dershowitz pulled a Clint Eastwood.) There were no speakers to provide ‘balance’ – like say, Norman Finkelstein, who once said that Dershowitz’s books were not good enough to be used as schmattas, rags to clean windows with.

To paraphrase Nietzsche ever so slightly, “A man far oftener appears to have a decided character from persistently following his temperament than from persistently following his [professed] principles.”