Saturday, October 23, 2004

Siva V on copyrights and wrongs

An old pal from UT who I knew from working together at The Daily Texan, Siva Vaidhyanathan gave an interesting interview on the Internet copyright wars, a subject about which he's published two books.

I'm pretty much 100% with Siva on the broad outlines of this subject, but I must say I found his points about polarization of debate over P2P file sharing a bit wrong-headed. He complains of "rabid rhetoric" by consumers and "extreme moves" by the big corporations, but to me, he paints a false picture to equate the two and call for "middle ground." In Siva's words, "To both the big music companies and my students, we are talking about fundamental values: commerce vs. freedom. Neither side concedes the slightest point to the other."

In the introduction, though, interviewer R.U. Sirius pointed out that downloaders are up for a reasonable compromise. Sirius noted, "the 'free music' debate has been rendered at least partly moot for one individual: me. It may sound terribly unhip, but I’m getting more satisfaction from a certain subscription music site than I have ever received while navigating the vagaries of the chaotic file-sharing universe. This is, of course, the point that file sharers have been making forever — that if the music industry would just get its shit together and offer better services at a reasonable price, they wouldn’t need to go stomping all over the p2p (peer-to-peer) crowd."

The examples given in the interview for this alleged polarization belie the equation of "extremes" Siva alleges. The link giving an example of "extreme moves" by corporations references efforts by a powerful industry lobbyist pushing for radical legislation in Congress. The link portraying "rabid rhetoric" leads to a post in the comments section of a blog by "Toiletman" commanding readers to "Fuck the RIAA." It doesn't take a social scientist or cultural historian to see there's a fundamental distinction between the two -- the corporate lobbyist has a decent shot of getting what he wants, while Toiletman, however over-the-top his rhetoric, couldn't influence Congress to pass gas.

Sirius' attitude expressed above conforms more to my own experience -- most Internet users aren't unreasonable or looking to "steal." We're just tired of being stolen from, and what's being stolen is our First Amendment right to free expression. In the big picture, Siva agrees, as indicated by such insightful comments as "Copyright is the most pervasive threat to free speech in America." Who owns those copyrights, though? It ain't Toiletman.

What's really happening on this topic is that corporations are rolling over us all, with most folks having little or no real recourse to combat them. The "rabid rhetoric" expresses frustration at powerlessness. The "extreme moves" are mere expressions of the prerogatives of power. In that context, "middle ground" just means whatever concessions can be wrung out of the big companies -- I'm not even sure what it would mean for consumers to seek middle ground, since right now they're afforded no turf at all.

Thankfully Siva and a lot of other good folks are working hard to protect the rights of consumers against these media giants, however one frames the debate. Check out his latest book, The Anarchist in the Library, if what you see in the interview interests you.


Adina said...

Hi, Scott.

I loved Copyrights and Copywrongs. Didn't think Anarchist in the Library was quite as strong a book.

Reviews of Anarchist here, and Copywrongs here.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Adina's Copywrongs review is actually here. And be sure to read Siva's response to Adina's Anarchist review. Thanks Adina!

Anonymous said...

Super work performed.