for 1. 1. 2014: Charles Dickens, implacable foe of the witless ‘information wants to be free’ movement

january 1 2014 SCALED Te Deum, Sant'Ambrogio 1 DSCF3492[2]

Sant’Ambrogio, 6.30 am, 31.12.2013 - photographs by MIL22

Sant’Ambrogio, 6.30 pm, 31. 12. 2013
– photographs by MIL22

1.1.2014 - postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

1. 1. 2014 begins
– postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

[ re-posting ‘for 1. 1. 2014’ entry, now that there are finally a few minutes to add the clips originally intended for this space ]

The anger of Charles Dickens about greed and hypocrisy —  which extended to copyright scoffers, we recently discovered — was the fire that lit his genius. This fact is strangely forgotten by critics of his ‘mawkish sentimentality,’ possibly because too many of them crumble before the challenge of long sentences fizzing with wit to have read him in the original.

Anyone can understand Dickens’s fury about book pirates driving him to write about how much copyright could mean to an author scraping by on earnings from literary craft and the exercise of imagination — as he had himself, before he was famous. But who could guess that in 1838 and ‘39, when he was publishing The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby as a serial, he specifically addressed copyright opponents intent on smashing the concept of artistic ownership – with exactly the same perverted notion of ‘democracy’ as leaders of today’s ‘information wants to be free’ movement?

For a representative of those opponents, in Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens chose a Member of Parliament,  a Mr. Gregsbury, ‘a tough, burly, thick-headed gentleman, with a loud voice, a pompous manner, a tolerable command of sentences with no meaning in them, and, in short, every requisite for a very good member indeed.’

This oaf’s rhinoceros hide makes it easy for him to blow off the demand by a delegation of his constituents that he resign immediately, even though they have presented him with proof of several acts of blatant corruption. This happens just before Nicholas’s interview with him for the post of secretary – an offer he is obliged to reject, though desperate to find work and emaciated from lack of food. The insultingly tiny salary is for duties the M.P. outlines that include serving as office clerk, speech-writer, researcher, PR-man, outsourced brain, and late-night attendant at parliamentary sessions.

In that job interview, the pontificator turns to the subject of copyright:

‘With regard to such questions as are not political,’ continued Mr Gregsbury, warming; ‘and which one can’t be expected to care a curse about, beyond the natural care of not allowing inferior people to be as well off as ourselves—else where are our privileges?—I should wish my secretary to get together a few little flourishing speeches, of a patriotic cast. For instance, if any preposterous bill were brought forward, for giving poor grubbing devils of authors a right to their own property, I should like to say, that I for one would never consent to opposing an insurmountable bar to the diffusion of literature among THE PEOPLE,—you understand?—that the creations of the pocket, being man’s, might belong to one man, or one family; but that the creations of the brain, being God’s, ought as a matter of course to belong to the people at large—and if I was pleasantly disposed, I should like to make a joke about posterity, and say that those who wrote for posterity should be content to be rewarded by the approbation OF posterity; it might take with the house, and could never do me any harm, because posterity can’t be expected to know anything about me or my jokes either—do you see?’

‘I see that, sir,’ replied Nicholas.

‘You must always bear in mind, in such cases as this, where our interests are not affected,’ said Mr Gregsbury, ‘to put it very strong about the people, because it comes out very well at election-time; and you could be as funny as you liked about the authors; because I believe the greater part of them live in lodgings, and are not voters.

… Dickens, who would make an excellent patron saint for the Occupy movement, also sounds bang-up-to-the-minute topical – in the same novel – in a scene in which an unsuccessful, small-time crook cringingly addresses one routinely getting away with larceny on a grand scale:

I left you—long after that time, remember—and, for some poor trickery that came within the law, but was nothing to what you money-makers daily practise just outside its bounds, was sent away a convict for seven years.

Why is the smaller snippet worth adding, there? Because, as we were on our way to this post, we caught sight of a blog title on the site of The New York Review of Books:

The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?

The answer by the blogger, Jed S. Rakoff, in part:

One possibility […] is that no fraud was committed. This possibility should not be discounted. Every case is different, and I, for one, have no opinion about whether criminal fraud was committed in any given instance.

But the stated opinion of those government entities asked to examine the financial crisis overall is not that no fraud was committed. Quite the contrary. For example, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, in its final report, uses variants of the word “fraud” no fewer than 157 times in describing what led to the crisis, concluding that there was a “systemic breakdown,” not just in accountability, but also in ethical behavior.

… Fairness in the copyright debate. Progress from mere rhetoric to forcing reforms in keeping with the Occupiers’ aims.  How wonderful if these should prove to be defining features of 2014. Too much change for a single year? Ah, but this is the centenary of the start of a single war that re-drew the boundaries of the countries of Europe, in the course of which both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires vanished.

Anything is possible. ‘Candles, flowers and hope in a new beginning,’ reflected our MIL22 — whose peerless images from an impulsive New Year’s Eve visit to the medieval Sant’Ambrogio begin 2014 for post-Gutenberg.

If Silicon Valley knew any history, would it be encouraging the destruction of artistic copyright — as energetically as it fights infringements of technology patents?

‘Venus and Cupid,’ Cranach the Elder, 1509

German artists of the Renaissance, inspired by Italy, took off in other directions: ‘Venus and Cupid,’ Cranach the Elder, 1509

There is something wonderfully right about a son of Italy, Federico Faggin, being the designer of the ur-ancestor of the miniature electronic brains at the core of our computers, tablets, and every other intelligent device in our nearly all-digital, all-wired existence.

Italy was the first place in Europe to experience the damburst of transformative creativity we call the Renaissance. The worship of invention and innovation that defines Silicon Valley is easily traced across six centuries to Veneto, the region in which Federico, the architect of the first commercial microprocessor, was born in 1941– with today’s date on his birth certificate. Vicenza, the town on that document, is famous as the home and chief showplace of the work of Andrea Palladio, the most influential architect of the Renaissance and, experts say, Western architectural tradition. We have been amused to discover, in looking up his lifespan, that yesterday was Palladio’s birthday – in 1508.

None of these are connections we have ever heard anyone in Silicon Valley make – even if Federico is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry for Vicenza. Why, you might ask, do they need making? Why should geniuses frantically multitasking to design our collective future stop to trace the antecedents of their grand enterprise?

Well, we were dismayed by the green light a U.S. federal judge gave Google last month, which lets the search engine leader continue to scan and upload millions of books online. It can do this without paying living authors of any of those print originals a cent for the free access it gives any web surfer to sections of the texts. This, as Google insists and the judge accepted, is an important act of cultural generosity. All very well, we agree, until you consider that it allows Google itself, already one of the world’s richest companies, to grow even richer from selling advertising space in its vast library of scanned texts, Google Books – while making no contribution to easing the notorious financial uncertainty of book-writing, or reversing the comprehensive destruction by the digital revolution of too many struggling writers’ livelihoods.

Google’s defence for this seeming callousness is all tied up with the scholar Lawrence Lessig’s insistence – enshrined in the ‘free culture’ movement – that loosening copyright laws will permit more ‘sharing’ of artistic and original works and a flowering of collective creativity; conversely, that the enforcement of traditional copyright blocks such creativity.

Too many of his ardent disciples are also apt to parrot the notion that all creativity is ultimately derivative and builds on the work of others. Fair enough, until that truism is wielded as a club, justifying the smashing of an artist’s right to earn income from the labour of shaping derivative inspiration. This argument is particularly unwelcome from anyone working in, say, Google – famous for its ferocious secrecy about its equivalent of Coca-Cola’s secret recipe, the algorithms on which its search engine runs. These are thickly enmeshed in protective patents. There is incontrovertible proof of the company’s recognition of intellectual property rights – but only in its own sphere, technology, where it follows the conventions for acknowledging in cash its indebtedness for creative opportunities. Google has for years been paying royalties to Stanford, the university where its founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page developed the algorithm they used to set up shop – a total of $337 million so far.

If Silicon Valley-ites knew their history, would Lessig’s wish to dilute if not dismantle copyright have proved so popular? Technologists know enough about the importance of the Renaissance for Bill Gates to have snapped up Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex for $30 million in 1994. But do they realise that the expression of personal, individual creativity was the key to that revolution? That in the Renaissance, artists were liberated from the constraining group-think and rigid rules of minds enslaved to medieval church doctrine?

Giorgio Vasari, a painter of that era and also the first historian of Italian art is said by the historian John Hale to have looked for maniera – the manner in which an artist expressed himself, a novelty after the Middle Ages’ convention of anonymous stonemasons toiling on great Gothic cathedrals, humbly suppressing their individuality in the service of God.

That individuality was of the essence of the Renaissance was also discernible in the way each country – and individual artists in it – reinterpreted the marvellous innovations in Italy in its own way. As Hale put it, ‘Whatever was made in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries … met two major obstacles: personal genius and shared temperament – the stereotypes of national character …’. This accounts, for instance, for the strikingly different treatment of the female subjects of the German painter Lucas Cranach (1442-1573), whose ‘Venus Restraining Cupid’ Hale calls ‘the first frontally nude goddess in German art.’

Technologists need to help artists to prosper from the expression of their individual visions. In the eight years Google spent fighting the legal battle over its book-scanning, couldn’t it have found a way to use its clout and brilliant inventiveness to establish micropayments as a way to compensate artists, writers and musicians – the way Amazon has taken online retailing from a futurist’s pipe dream to everyday reality?

… We must note in closing that in years of delightful conversations with Federico and his lovely wife Elvia – also born in Vicenza, and whom he considers indispensable to his achievements in Silicon Valley – he has never sought any reflected glory from the Renaissance, nor drawn any attention to Palladio’s stamp on the appearance of his birthplace. His modesty is exemplary. Still, we doubt that he would disagree with this entry in post-Gutenberg, his eldest child being not a technologist but a painter … of whom we will reveal just a little more, anon.

Buon compleanno, Federico!

BLUE BACKDROP faggin

Does copyright law turn art into commodities? part 1: an answer with help from Albrecht Dürer, ARTICLE19, Salman Rushdie and Anthony Storr

Artists who can control copying with copyright have more creative freedom - photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

Artists who can control copying with copyright have more creative freedom
– photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

Albrecht Dürer: self-portrait, aged 13

Albrecht Dürer: self-portrait, aged 13

How does newness enter the world?

Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie, 2012

Dear Copyright-Haters,

How about picketing Tupperware?  Yes, … we are perfectly serious. Imagine the Facebook updates of yourselves holding giant sock-it-to-‘em placards shouting, ‘STOP COMMODIFICATION NOW!’ … What’s that? … Right. How, you ask, would you store your left-over microwaveable meals in this post-cooking age without plastic boxes so much alike that, even with brand names, they are virtual commodities? You could try porcelain bowls covered with plates or tin foil for an alternative – but no, you say, no one does that any more … muttering to yourselves, inaudibly, ‘Idiot!

We’ve been hearing that you hate commodification. After last week’s post with Jaron Lanier warning about the consequences for other professions of destroying artists’ rights to control the use of their work, a friend emailed us to say that enemies of copyright are not playing Scrooge when you refuse to contribute even micropayments to enjoy art. (Most of you agree merrily with, eg., the blithe prediction by the editor of Wired: ‘ I think most music will soon be free, …’).

The problem, this friend explained, is that you fear the commodification of the arts. We have heard similar thoughts expressed as, more or less, this: ‘Why should a musician get to charge every time he or she sells a replica of a single performance on cheap plastic CDs over and over again – and get obscenely rich from the proceeds, in some cases?’ Well. Just as a thought experiment, how about putting music CDs lower down on your hit list and starting with obvious horrors – those containers made of processed petroleum, clogging landfill in their millions? One day last month, Tupperware’s share price went rocketing into the heavens – hitting ‘a new 52-week high,’ we noticed. Now, that’s encouragement for commodification!

Why pick on artists instead of finding some way to hijack the profits from  (comparatively) mindless replication elsewhere? The new digital technologies were supposed to relieve some of the pain and hardship behind the centuries-old ‘starving artist’ cliché. They introduced the possibility of financial independence for more artists than ever before — linked to their ability to control how they work, and own the results. By, for instance, recording and distributing their own musical performances; or publishing or exhibiting their e-books, paintings, sculpture, and so on.

On the blog of The New York Review of Books, there is a perfect example from medieval Europe of an artist using new technology as an aid and spur to artistic independence, creativity and an evolutionary leap in drawing and painting. About the sublime German, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), whom the Wikipedia reasonably pegs as ‘the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance,’ the NYRB blogger Andrew Butterfield writes:

Dürer was perhaps the first artist in history to work primarily at his own direction, rather than on commission and at the pleasure of princes and other exigent patrons. The change was made possible by his concentration on printmaking rather than painting as his main artistic and commercial endeavor. Most paintings of this time, such as altarpieces, were made for well-established religious or civic purposes, and the patrons and other viewers had specific needs and strong expectations regarding both what was depicted and how it was represented. But printmaking was a completely new medium, little beholden to tradition. Even when treating Biblical themes, Dürer was comparatively free to pursue a more personal investigation of subject matter.

The painters of Dürer’s time who specialised in portraiture worked like – shall we say, analogue precursors of photo-editing software, who did all the retouching in the act of image-creation rather than after it. The most talented of them could grow rich themselves by following the conventions for flattering their powerful, wealthy subjects in oils – but with their creativity as constrained as the ‘lotus feet’ tortured into existence by foot-binding. Printmaking allowed Dürer  to flout those rules to develop an entirely new, realistic style in portraiture:

Typically portraiture was honorific and meant to represent the exemplary virtues of the person shown; Dürer instead often sought to capture the idiosyncratic and psychological characteristics of the people he portrayed. He was fascinated with the close scrutiny of dark and brooding emotion.

The Wikipedia explains the effect of his independence:

Dürer exerted a huge influence on the artists of succeeding generations, especially in printmaking, the medium through which his contemporaries mostly experienced his art, as his paintings were predominately in private collections located in only a few cities. His success in spreading his reputation across Europe through prints were undoubtedly an inspiration for major artists such as Raphael, Titian, and Parmigianino, all of whom collaborated with printmakers in order to promote and distribute their work.

Copyright laws were one invention that accompanied the replication that the printing press and printmaking introduced. Before reproducibility could be taken for granted, only the wealthy could afford to adorn their walls with the work of painters; after it, peasants could have their own woodcuts of saints and angels.

This makes your association of copyright with elitism, o copyright-smashers – and your attempts to cast artistic ownership as stifling or destructive of creativity — alarmingly batty, to say the least.

ARTICLE19’s excellent prescriptions for bloggers’ rights — putting them on a par with those of professional journalists — were recently the subject of a post in this spot. This same organisation has also made thoughtful recommendations for the evolution of copyright laws in another paper. Perfectly in keeping with what copyright allowed Durer to do, this document says:

Freedom of expression and copyright are complementary inasmuch as the purpose of copyright is the promotion of literary, musical and artistic creativity, the enrichment of cultural heritage and the dissemination of knowledge and information goods to the general public.

Some of us can only pray that protecting copyright as its rules are revised for the digital age will free arts workers from paymasters. From the domain of musical composition, the psychologist Anthony Storr offers in The Dynamics of Creation (1972) an elegant example of what financial dependence costs creativity:

Some very good music has been written for film … but the limitations imposed by having to tie the music strictly to the action means that the composer cannot choose for himself a vital dimension of the composition, its length. Most composers, therefore, rate film music as ‘incidental’ music, and separate it sharply from original compositions which truly reflect their own creative personality.

… In the last few days, we have learnt from Salman Rushdie’s riveting autobiography, Joseph Anton, about ARTICLE19’s crucial support in his years of enforced hiding from assassins trying to carry out his death sentence, the Iranian fatwa. Curiosity about this organisation’s backers led us to discover that these include Britain’s Foreign Office, the Department for International Aid (DFID) / UKAID, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Commission, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Open Society Institute (OSI), the Ford Foundation, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and in Silicon Valley, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

That was a real comfort – knowing of the existence of an organisation with international financing that advocates both blogging as a form of free speech and copyright protection.

Now about your Tupperware march …

… over to you,

post-Gutenberg