Monday, January 28, 2013

The Empire Eats the Innovators Part 1: The Decline of the Public Domain

“Our system of law doesn't acknowledge the derivative nature of creativity. Instead, ideas are regarded as property, as unique and original lots with distinct boundaries. But ideas aren't so tidy. They're layered, they’re interwoven, they're tangled. And when the system conflicts with the reality... the system starts to fail.”----Kirby Ferguson, Everything is a Remix Part 4

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm this past December, the question on everyone’s mind, from geek blogs to mainstream news outlets, was what this meant creatively.  How would these new owners capitalize on their new property?  What would the stories be?  Who would direct the inevitable films?  What seemed to not be questioned, however, were the ideological implications of the news.  Why do we accept so freely a system that allows for corporate ownership of intellectual property?  What does it mean that single entities are allowed to own and dictate what eventually becomes the collective narrative of a culture?    

Limitation to the indefinite ownership of ideas is one of the few actual legal rights spelled out in the US Constitution.  The Bill of Rights sought to promote “the science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”  And, as becomes problematic for any central document intended to organize a large a system over time, powerful interests found ways to interpret the law to fit their needs. This led to the development of strict Intellectual Property laws for the service not of individuals, but centralized corporate entities.

Source: Techfleece

The term limits of copyrights have been expanding since the initial terms of 14 years set in 1790.  First in 1909, then again in 1976 and, most dramatically, with 1998's “Mickey Mouse Act”, the length of time granted to private ownership (and even more so to corporate ownership) has moved steadily away from the initial concept of “limited” time.  A corporately authored creation can now enjoy an ownership period of 120 years.  The idea of a robust public domain moves further and further away, while purchases of vast swaths of intellectual property are celebrated for their creative potential.

The Copyright Term Extension Act, heavily lobbied by Disney, severely extended corporate control over intellectual property.
Most troubling is the implicit acceptance of the dictatorial control of ideas and characters by a central governing power, in this case the Walt Disney Corporation.  The spokespeople of geek culture should by design be suspicious of mainstream usurpation.  Anyone whose culture is based in marginalized interests should look with suspicion upon the figures at the center of that culture.  But a geek culture seems acquiescent to the further centralization of power, a community so excited by the carrot of yet another Star Wars trilogy (which are totally going to live up to expectation this time) as to ignore the implicit nature of a political system that allows for ideas themselves to be bought and sold.

What if we resist the idea that Jedi can be owned?  Is it too much to ask for a system where, at least after a certain amount of time, popular characters are treated not as commodities, but masks concealing universal archetypes, their interpretation open to public use?  In one sense, Lucasfilm allowed for this for a decade, openly endorsing the creation of fan films with their Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards, encouraging the use of their properties and images from within the public community.  But now that they are under the ownership of a company notorious for its strict policy on usage, some are already asking  what this might mean in terms of fair use.

Source: ABC
Disney celebrates its news acquisition with a "Star Wars" themed episode of  Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Unfortunately, as the previous few decades have proven,  the idea of an open system of ideas, of a robust public domain, seems further and further from the accepted model.  Instead, the innovators find themselves swallowed up, while one of the most notoriously conservative corporations in the world continues to spread its girth.            

For a deeper examination of this issue, take a look at Kirby Ferguson's concluding entry in the "Everything is a Remix" series. 

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