Happy Birthday to William S. Burroughs — American novelist, short story writer, satirist, essayist, painter, and spoken word performer.
Prediction: In five hundred years, our current system of “intellectual property” (copyright, trademarks, patents) will be considered an archaic affront to basic human rights, rather like “creative feudalism”. It will be mentioned alongside multi-level-marketing and trickle-down economics as one of the peculiarly unchallenged scams of our era. People of the future will wonder how we could have possibly been so stupid.
When confronted with the “antis” — anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-gun, anti-women, anti-science, anti-South, anti-sex, etc. — who seem so devoted to their agendas of hatred, ignorance, and irrational fear, I am reminded of a line from Anaïs Nin‘s “Seduction of the Minotaur” (echoing a much older idea):
We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.
I liked the first Harry Potter book and the first Harry Potter movie. The whole setting is nonsensical, but it was fun to explore this wacky nonsense world, and Harry was a sympathetic underdog. I liked each successive book and movie less, as they became progressively less fun and more dreary, while remaining completely nonsensical, and while Harry became progressively less sympathetic.
Dreary, nonsensical, and unsympathetic is not a recipe for a good movie (or book).
My favorite character is Snape, of course.
I read voraciously as a child. I stumbled across Arcology: The City in the Image of Man in the library some time in the late 1970s, and it made a huge impression on me. I immediately created some imaginary worlds for people to live in within these immense structures. I have been thinking about the cyberpunk genre recently, in large part because of some conversations with Chris Helton. I made an offhand comment about cyberpunk being the 2020s as imagined by the 1980s, but really, I think cyberpunk has its roots even earlier, in the work of Paolo Soleri and Samuel Delany (Babel 17, Dhalgren).
Susan and I had a conversation earlier about Sherlock Holmes, and whether the 125-year-old character was in the public domain (it should have been in the public domain before either of us were born, but that’s another topic).
In process of researching our discussion, I turned up this article regarding a suit filed recently in federal court in Chicago. A top Sherlock Holmes scholar alleges that many licensing fees paid to the Arthur Conan Doyle estate have been unnecessary, since the main characters and elements of their story derive from materials in the public domain (as of 2004, only 9 of the 60 Sherlock Holmes stories by Doyle are still covered under US copyright).
Copyright was an Enlightenment-era social experiment: use the power of government to prevent people from selling or copying creative works without the consent of the creator for a limited time. As originally conceived, I think it was relatively reasonable. However, the current perception (perpetuated by large media companies that seek to own and control our cultural heritage) that when someone creates something once once, that they (rather, the corporation they work for) should be able to monetize that and prevent other people from sharing it or building on it forever has caused and continues to cause severe damage to our common culture, and to the culture of future generations.
If current copyright law had always existed, there would be no libraries, because there would be nothing to put in them.
Update (2012-11-18): That didn’t take long. Less than 24 hours after this “eminently sensible copyright position paper” was posted, the paper has been pulled and the Republicans are falling over themselves to placate the media robber barons. Money doesn’t win elections, but this makes it abundantly clear that money does buy politicians. (In case you doubted it.)
I had an idea a couple of months ago. It would be a marketplace for writers, editors, and artists to come together as collaborators. It would be driven by the authors: in the new model of book distribution, authors are in control. They set the prices, they decide where the book will be distributed, and they are the ones that get paid by the distributors.
But authors need talented editors and gifted artists. Most authors aren’t either of those things. How is an author to find an editor with a good track record, one who sees themselves as on the authors side? How can an author find a cover artist or map artist who can meet a deadline and produce work according to spec? And how can the editors and artists find the authors who need them and who will pay on time (editors and artists want to feed their cats, too).
So my idea was a marketplace for this, where authors, artists, and editors would meet as peers. Everyone would be able to review everyone else, but only if they’d worked with them. The marketplace site would make sure that everyone got paid, and would act as the middleman to keep everyone honest. For this service, the marketplace would keep, say, 10% of the transacction (which should be enough to cover the site’s costs).
I pitched this to the company I work for, but it was too far from our current business focus to interest them. I would love to get it started, but I don’t have the start-up capital or the business acumen to make it work. I wish I did. So, here it is: a business that I believe is desperately needed. If you have the resources to start a business but just lack the idea, feel free to use this one.
There was a reason for the rise of the great publishing houses of yesteryear — not everyone could afford a printing press. That gave power to those who could afford them: the power to control what books were printed, and what books were not. The criteria publishers have used to make that decision have varied, according to the fashion and politics of the time, but the quality of the book itself has rarely, if ever, been the primary consideration.
There has been no need or reason for publishers to be wardens of our culture for at least a decade. Today, anyone can be a publisher. Where a few Goliaths once stood, now there are a thousand Davids. People who pine for “gatekeepers” and who sneer at ebooks simply because of how the book was distributed… it’s just sad. It’s like an ex-convict who can’t handle the outside world and wants to return to prison.
A good book is a good book, and a bad book is a bad book, and how the book reached the reader has no bearing on that whatsoever. I feel a great swell of pity for the poor soul who wants other people to control which books he may read and which he may not.
I have an update on that poem I was looking for.
I finally found a single reference to this poem, through Google Books, in The Columbia Granger’s guide to poetry anthologies, a book which is itself a listing and review of other books. The poem is called “Where the Neuter Computer Goes Click”, and it was contained in the anthology Of quarks, quasars, and other quirks: Quizzical poems for the supersonic age, edited by Sara Westbrook Brewton, John Edmund Brewton, and Quentin Blake, published in 1977. That’s not where I encountered it: as I mentioned, I read it in a literature textbook.
The anthology is out of print, but used copies are really cheap, so I went ahead and bought one.