Saturday, June 27, 2009

Into the Fray; New York Times Book Review, 6/19/09

Book Review: Ross Douthat on Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarians: A Writer's Manifesto, via New York Times Book Review; Into the Fray:

"In 2007, [Mark Helprin] published an essay in the Op-Ed section of this newspaper arguing for the continuing extension of copyright, so that the rights to a novel or poem could be passed down not only to the author’s children, but to his children’s children’s children as well. Since a more latitudinarian copyright regime is a cause célèbre for a certain class of Internetista, his argument ignited a storm of criticism, and the comments appended to the online version of the article ran into the hundreds of thousands. And since this was, after all, the Internet, most of them were stupid.

Helprin could have ignored the barrage; he could have sifted it for arguments worth replying to. Instead, he decided to write a furious treatise against the comment-happy horde. The resulting book, “Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto,” is a vindication of the aphorism about the perils of wrestling with a pig. (You get dirty; the pig likes it.) Helprin can be a wonderful wordsmith, and there are many admirable passages and strong arguments in this book. But the thread that binds the work together is hectoring, pompous and enormously tedious...

Here it’s worth contrasting “Digital Barbarism” with a book by one of the “crapulous professors” in question — Stanford’s Lawrence Lessig, whose “Free Culture,” a 2004 brief against the current state of copyright law, provides a touchstone for the movement Helprin hates. Lessig is not a tenth the writer that Helprin is, but he has other gifts — the ability to argue in a calm and ordered fashion; the capacity to at least pretend to give the other side its due; and the ability to avoid fevered prose and name-calling while making a controversial case. He may be a Mad Hatter, but he comes across as deeply sane, and it’s hard to imagine a reader new to this debate who wouldn’t find “Free Culture” more convincing than “Digital Barbarism.”

This doesn’t mean that Lessig is right and Helprin is not. On the broader question of Internet culture, Helprin’s pessimistic vision has a great deal to recommend it. Where the critics of copyright perceive the Internet age as a potential Renaissance being blocked by overconsolidated corporations, Helprin worries, plausibly, that the spirit of perpetual acceleration threatens to carry all before it, frenzying our politics, barbarizing our language and depriving us of the kind of artistic greatness that isn’t available on Twitter feeds. The fact that he gave in to the frenzy himself is regrettable, but it doesn’t make him wrong.

On the narrower question of how and whether copyright law should be adjusted, meanwhile — and it is a narrow question, the claims of both sides notwithstanding — there might actually be a middle ground. Helprin is persuasive when he argues that copyright’s disappearance would be a slow-motion disaster, and plausible when he argues that the direct costs of letting his descendants continue to profit from sales of “A Soldier of the Great War” are minor or even nonexistent. But Lessig and company are equally plausible when they suggest that the copyright laws that protect the Helprin family’s intellectual property can be misused, usually by lawyered-up corporations, to block the kind of creative borrowing and reworking that early generations of artists took for granted.

Why not, then, simultaneously extend copyright and narrow its scope? Let the Helprins continue to earn royalties into the distant future, but let adaptations, derivations, parodies and borrowing flower more quickly and completely than the current system allows. Leave the Tolkiens the rights to “The Hobbit”in perpetuity, but not the right to prevent two enterprising film companies from going forward with competing adaptations. Leave the Mitchells the rights to “Gone With the Wind,” but not the right to tie up a would-be parodist in court for years on end because they don’t like what she’s doing to their Scarlett. Leave the Lucas family the right to “Stars Wars,” but not the right to prevent me from writing my own competing version of Anakin Skywalker’s life story.

Maybe this sort of system would turn out to be impractical. But it’s only one of the many bridges one could imagine between a principled defense of artistic property rights and a principled defense of artistic freedom. It’s a shame that Helprin was too busy wrestling with the monkeys and mouth-breathing morons to try building it."

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