The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Something Genuinely Good the Internet Has Allowed…

…is Sci-Hub, which hosts scholarly articles. SciHub, to be clear, is illegal in the US and other countries.

Sci-Hub can instantly provide access to more than two-thirds of all scholarly articles, an amount that Himmelstein says is “even higher” than he anticipated. For research papers protected by a paywall, the study found Sci-Hub’s reach is greater still, with instant access to 85 percent of all papers published in subscription journals. For some major publishers, such as Elsevier, more than 97 percent of their catalog of journal articles is being stored on Sci-Hub’s servers—meaning they can be accessed there for free.

Science, and scholarship in general, is supposed to be about the open sharing of information. What’s happened instead is that journals were bought up by a few companies, and access was made expensive. Getting a single article usually costs between $10 and $15 in my experience, and most are behind paywalls. University libraries have some access, though few can pay for all journals, but not everyone has access to university accounts.

(This is similar to accessing, say, Statistics Canada, which is also behind a paywall for most things. This limits who can effectively research Canadian subjects. Full access costs thousands of dollars. One can imagine what effect that might have on not just who uses the info, but in what sort of research is done with the information.)

Again, Sci-Hub is illegal. It is also entirely in the spirit of science and scholarship. Information doesn’t want to be free, but scholarly information should be, both because scholarship advances more quickly when everyone has access, and because (normative statement) everyone should have access to scholarly and scientific information.

Also, given that peer reviewers are not paid for by journals and that most research is done with public money, and, well, the internet now exists, the argument for subscription journals is weak. They restrict access to information in a way which is bad for researchers (who usually want their work read), as well.

So. This is one of the things the internet has done that is truly good. Note that it is illegal.

(Meanwhile Russia has made using VPNs and proxies illegal, which is far more important and harmful than expelling a few diplomats…well, as long as expelling those diplomats isn’t one of the steps towards a US/Russian war.)

Code is NOT law, but sometimes people can use it to the do the right thing.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


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  1. The Stephen Miller Band

    Oh, I’ve noted it’s illegal and that says it all, doesn’t it? It also speaks to the Elitism of Academics & Academia that many of them, and it, don’t/doesn’t want this work shared for the benefit of ALL.

    Locking all of this Knowledge up behind Paywalls is tantamount to storing ALL the Secrets of Civilization in the dark damp castle cellars of Monastic Abbeys during the Dark Ages because what The People don’t know can’t help them, and that’s as it should be.

    David Brin, a Sci-Fi Writer, claims the Society of The Future will be Fully Transparent. I think he’s Dead Wrong. So long as their is Civilization, there can and will be extreme limits to any form of, or inclination towards, Transparency.

    Knowledge is Power, and Civilization is ALL ABOUT concentrating Power in the Hands of a Few, therefore, Knowledge must be secured & safeguarded at ALL COSTS.

    A New Search Engine

  2. RandomScientist

    It should be noted, as well, that researchers pay a fee to get published in these journals, that will then charge other researchers wishing to read it. Some publishers are starting to offer free access options for articles, granted the person who write the articles (and by that, I mean his/her laboratory and public funds) pays an additional cost.
    Academic publication is truly a mess and SciHub one of the best thing that could happen to it.

  3. V. Arnold

    Yes Ian, I agree, the good of the internet; but, the true autodidact’s will always find the facts relevant to the dominant reality of the day.
    There are vast libraries still available to the masses (but not used).
    And there are private libraries to rival the public ones still available (but not accessed).
    Information is everywhere; but it takes a serious scholarly inquiry to root out the facts; the reality of the day, week, month, or year.
    But, what I see, is a lazy public looking to leaders to make it easy, so they don’t have to think…about anything
    The blithering idiots get exactly what they desrve…

  4. Oh, I’ve noted it’s illegal and that says it all, doesn’t it? It also speaks to the Elitism of Academics & Academia that many of them, and it, don’t/doesn’t want this work shared for the benefit of ALL.

    The problem aren’t the academics, who basically work for free or pay to publish. The problem is the way academics are evaluated for grants and promotions, and the undue power it gives an academic publishing industry that these days does little more than put a PDF online with bibliographic data. Academics don’t see an iota of the revenue and happily distribute free copies of their work. The academic publishing industry, more than any other publishing industry, is a dead industry walking.

  5. “It is alive I tell you! Alive!”

  6. The Stephen Miller Band

    Okay, Mandos, I’ll call you on your latest comment. If what you say is indeed true, then lets form an Academic Institution called the Free Knowledge Institute where everything pondered, analyzed and created by it is Free to All. Are you Game? I am. If not, why not? If Academics are open to sharing knowledge for ALL, then we should have no trouble getting the Institute up & running. If the majority of Society is open to the same notion & principle, then surely Crowdsourcing can fund the start-up costs. What do you say, Mandos?

  7. Sure, if you have a way to pay everyone’s rent and living costs and, in the USA, health insurance. If you have an institution like that, I guarantee you would have no shortage of people willing to join you. There are places like what you describe, but they are bankrolled by rich philanthropists, with the attendant problems of that model.

    Many fields are moving onto online repositories. Math, CS, physics use arXiv a lot. For people with a desire for traditional journal review and quality control, there are growing free outlets like PLoS, which charge a small fee to the author and nothing to the public.

    A German university consortium is currently boycotting several commercial publishers, I hear. Eventually open access will be the default, it is an institutional and governmental problem about how the bean-counters pay people to live.

  8. You see, the majority if society is surprisingly Not Open to the idea of free knowledge for all. This surprises me at an fundamental, emotional level, but it is nevertheless true. Most people believe that valuable knowledge should cost something and should not be accessible to all. If that were not the case, no one would have to fight constantly for net neutrality, for example.

  9. The Stephen Miller Band

    Thanks, Mandos. That’s the answer I knew you would provide. There we have it. In this Game of Monopoly, you cannot proceed past Square One. Any further discussion is moot & a waste of time & effort.

    We Are All Prisoners Here Of Our Own Device.

  10. No, the point is that the world is moving beyond “Square One” on this issue. That was the point of Ian’s article. It may not be moving in the way you want it moved, but it is moving.

  11. The Stephen Miller Band

    I don’t think it is. Some may be trying, but the Masters of Containment are checking them every step of the way to the point there really is no progress or momentum in that positive direction. At the heart of this, obviously, is Private Property — The Sacred Cow.

  12. Perhaps. You are right the private property is the sacred cow and that sits at the heart of the problem.

  13. Jessica

    “Information doesn’t want to be free”
    It doesn’t want to be unfunded but it does want to be unimpeded.
    Information is fine with money being involved as long as the collection of money is not made possible by restricting the flow of information.
    Paywalls restrict the flow of information as does the current advertising-funded model that dominates the Internet, although more subtly.

  14. nihil obstet

    This is a step in the centuries long progress of enclosure of the commons for the enrichment of the property owners. The U.S. Constitution grants power to the government “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Copyright now in the U.S. can run as long as 120 years in the case of anonymous works, 70 years beyond the author’s death. How granting a copyright on anonymous works promotes an author is something that only a property-loving judicial system can understand. Copyright extensions can even be retroactive. And the exclusive legal right to the intellectual property is far more likely to belong to the authors/inventors’ employer than to the person herself.

    Furthermore, since 1980 research, writing, and inventions funded by the government are property of the persons and institutions who did the work, not the public domain of the taxpayer.

    I find none of this defensible. It damages us.

  15. Ed

    This is a result of rent-seeking and “guild” behavior, pure and simple.

    For an academic to get employment/tenure/be promoted/etc., they have to have a significant number of publications in the respected journals in the field. This is the guild behavior–demonstrate your credentials to be one of us or never get our benefits.

    Those journals therefore can rent-seek by charging the authors, charging the readers, and also requiring the authors reassign their copyrights to the journal (which happens and is pure theft).

    Most scientists I know would be happy to release their work under some version of a Creative Commons License (give them attribution, and if you find a way to profit off their work, give them a share, but it’s otherwise free). The guild mentality of their academic institutions makes that nigh impossible.

    The work arounds that a lot of scientists are setting up (their own bulletin boards, SciHub, etc.) address the rent-seeking some, but the guild mentality has to be addressed as well.

    Full disclosure: I left academia during grad school in part when it became apparent that no one cared about the quality of my work: just the number of publications I could list and the amount of grants I could win. I’d rather live with different types of dishonesty.

  16. Synoia

    Locking all of this Knowledge up behind Paywalls is tantamount to storing ALL the Secrets of Civilization in the dark damp castle cellars of Monastic Abbeys during the Dark Ages because what The People don’t know can’t help them, and that’s as it should be.

    No, Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria burnt it in 300 AD, which coincidentally or not was the date Constantine recognized Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire.

    Cyril’s action put the work back 1,200 years, until the Renaissance came along and people slowly became free to think and question again.

    Except extreme Protestants also suppressed though until the enlightenment.

    Then our current system came along an suppressed knowledge again, and hid it behind greed and profit.

  17. Synoia

    If the US corporations damaging the environment could burn their critics at the stake, they’d do it.

  18. John

    Thank you Ian. I’m sure many others like myself were unaware of SciHub. You are a genuine philosopher and a valuable internet asset, a rarity in any age, especially this one.

  19. The Stephen Miller Band

    Synoia, good point, but Cyril didn’t get it all. Of course, some can argue, and do I’m sure, that perhaps Cyril should have burnt it all, otherwise we wouldn’t be at the precipice of the extinction of our species as well as the extinction of so many more species. I’d trade my birth & the birth of my children for that, wouldn’t you?

    Medieval Monasticism as Preserver of Western Civilization

  20. The Stephen Miller Band

    Of course, I suppose that’s just my DNA talking. Afterall, as I was informed lately, I’m descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages. He was a notable Irish Leader who had a proclivity for kidnapping VIPs from Kingdoms he plundered. It is said, he kidnapped Saint Patrick and brought him to Ireland to chase away the snakes. Okay, I made up the snakes part, but the rest is Legend. He also won many fierce battles against the Romans or so Legend has it.

    I remember several years ago I had an email feud with Pat Lang and he bragged to me that his ancestors fought in the Crusades. I retorted that my ancestors were the Barbarians who ransacked Rome. I had no idea at the time I was the progeny of Niall of the Nine Hostages. I was just talking smack off the top of my head, and what do you know, I was right!! Anyway, it’s nice to know my ancestors beat the shit out of his ancestors and it would explain why the battle continues to this day. DNA’s more powerful than we care to admit. Maybe. Or maybe not. Frankly, I don’t really give a shit about who my ancestors were. There are some other families descended from Niall I would rather not be related to, but, it makes for a good story and party favor. And, great irony considering my feud with Lang.

  21. atcooper

    I was just telling a colleague the other day I’m less certain the internet has been a net good. It’s wonderful for centralizing power, for leveling thought, and narrowing views. It’s about the exact opposite of the early hopes. Maybe it can mature as a technology as have other innovations, and things will, generally, get better.

    The contributions here are one of the brighter flames for a better future. I don’t believe most internet traffic can claim the same.

    Mayhaps I should see what’s on tap in Sci Hub.

  22. Essentially, this article of yours implies that societies in general do not embrace any mode of transparency.

  23. Hugh

    I was tempted to be snarky and say that clearly Ian doesn’t understand the importance of intellectual property, but of course he does. It is all about the rents, folks, the good of society be damned.

    Before going on, I would like insert one small observation about peer review. It is a con whether we are talking publication or grant writing. Peer review is as much about gatekeeping as it is about quality control. Those chosen to perform it represent the prevailing view in a field and will tend to validate only those articles, or grants, which promote that view. And peer review is far from blind. If a certain subject is being treated or in a certain way, many reviewers can identify an article or proposal down to one lab or a handful of researchers. My usual take on academia is that far from being cutting edge. It is, in fact, very conservative and status quo.

    So back to copyright. Copyright was meant to promote the good and advancement of society by encouraging creative, innovative work by giving it limited protection for a time so that its creators could benefit from it in the short run and society could benefit from it in the long run. But in our kleptocratic economy, the social good has been completely eliminated from the conversation and the individual good largely circumscribed and taken over by corporations. So now we have the current absurd, criminal copyright laws in the US. From wiki

    Copyright protection generally lasts for 70 years after the death of the author. If the work was a “work for hire”, then copyright persists for 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is shorter. For works created before 1978, the copyright duration rules are complicated.

    All copyrightable works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain; works created before 1978 but not published until recently may be protected until 2047. For works that received their copyright before 1978, a renewal had to be filed in the work’s 28th year with the Copyright Office for its term of protection to be extended. The need for renewal was eliminated by the Copyright Renewal Act of 1992, but works that had already entered the public domain by non-renewal did not regain copyright protection. Therefore, works published before 1964 that were not renewed are in the public domain.

    What good does it do a creator that his/her work is copyrighted for 70 years after their death, that is not just their death but likely the death of their children and possibly some of their grandchildren as well? On the other hand, the loss to society is pretty clear.

  24. Peter

    SciHub claims to be funded by bitcoin donations and as it grows to displace the older publishers its costs will continue to rise and have to be met. A permanent funding scheme will be needed even if it’s less costly than the for profit model.

    Right now SciHub is run by a young Kazak criminal along with hackers funded by untraceable donors with much of its product stored in Russia. What could go wrong?

  25. I agree with many of the comments above regarding academe and its related publishing scam.

    Academic/scientific journals & publishing houses have become a skimmer industry leeching off the “publish or perish” game that determines whether those in academe are promoted/retained/receive tenure etc. We are all the losers in that game; and we all support it, financially, through taxes, tuition and paying outrageous sums for knowledge that should be in the public domain.

    I do, however, take issue with the “why does somebody need 70 years of copyright protection.” I firmly believe in the ‘pay the writer’ model.

    The need for a writer, artist, novelist etc. to have the ample copyright protection is simple. In their (our) later years, writing/written work looses its value almost completely if a publisher knows that the work product will be in the public domain in 1-10 years when the author will likely be death. It affects an author’s incentive to write/publish, and it inhibits her ability to be paid a fair price for her work if publishers know that they are only paying for the rights to publish a work that, potentially, may be free for anyone to publish by the time the book is ready to come out in paperback. Who wants to pay a fair wage for a writer’s work in those circumstances.

    For instance, no publisher will pay an adequate advance/or pay fair compensation for the next John le Carre book given his advanced age.

    How would we feel if Howard Zinn stopped receiving fair compensation the last 20 years of his life since publishers would have perceived his work as cheap, outdated and soon to free, from a marketing standpoint? Do we want writers such as him living only on uncertain royalties and receiving Huffington Post wages in his latter years?

    “Free The Knowledge” and “Pay The Writer” are mutually inclusive and mutually necessary.

  26. Ian Welsh

    If the benefits of that extended copyright went mostly to writers that’d be fine. But they don’t, they go to corporations. The copyright extensions came, generally, when Disney properties were about to fall out of copyright.

    If the right’s owned by a corp, it needs to end. And right now the main problem is that you can’t find anyone to give you the rights: it’s in copyright, author’s dead, estate can’t be found.

    A result of this is a vast copyright shadow. Trying to find a book published in the 60s or 70s or 80s that’s out of print is a nightmare, and they can’t be republished a lot of the time.

    I expect there is a simple solution which involves giving extended copyright only to individuals or groups of individuals (no corps or equivalent) and some sort of central registry for finding who has control at any given time.

  27. The Stephen Miller Band

    This discussion may very well be tantamount to whistling past the graveyard. The sad fact is, this next generation doesn’t read. Instead, they’re hooked on memes versus narratives. Social Media perfectly accommodates this style of information assimilation.

    So, there’s that, and then there is the problem of writing for pay which necessarily means you’re writing for an inculcated audience rather than writing just to merely freely express yourself. Once you start writing for pay and cultivate an audience, ultimately the audience controls your expression and holds you hostage to its expectations. The author/writer becomes beholden to the pressure exerted by his/her audience to express in the familiarity with which the audience has become accustomed. J.K. Rowling tried to switch style and subject matter/genre as a writer and failed miserably because her cultivated audience wanted nothing but Harry Potteresque from her. James Howard Clusterf*ck has patrons who in the aggregate remunerate him to the tune of nearly $40,000/year, and in return he eloquently says the same thing over & over again week in and week out to his increasingly racist audience until, presumably, he takes his last breath.As a result, creativity is stanched and that’s tragic, really.

    Writing, once upon a time, was a impassioned hobby and it was undertaken as a way to express & vent. As a way to share for posterity’s sake and not some entrepreneurial extrinsic reward. I, for example, don’t write for remuneration. I write because I’m compelled to write. I write because I’m compelled to express. If I didn’t write, I think I would go insane. I appreciate people who write for the same reason. Their prose is genuine and from the heart as opposed to fabricated & forced. I have written nearly 170 blog posts in three years and hardly anyone reads them, but I don’t care. I will continue to write blog posts until the day I die or the day they shut The Net down if they do, and, as far as the latter is concerned, when and/or if they shut The Net down, I’ll write on paper in a journal and if that’s no longer available, I’ll write on the subway walls.

    Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?

  28. The Stephen Miller Band

    Here’s an incredibly comprehensive article covering this topic. Actually, comprehensive is an understatement. It has everything you would want to know about it and more.

    Alexandra Elbakyan and Sci-Hub: The Full Story

  29. nihil obstet

    I expect there is a simple solution which involves giving extended copyright only to individuals or groups of individuals (no corps or equivalent) and some sort of central registry for finding who has control at any given time.

    Dean Baker has written a lot on problems with intellectual property. Here are two of his articles explaining the economic problems and proposing alternatives:
    The Artistic Freedom Voucher: Internet Age Alternative to Copyrights, and
    The Reform of Intellectual Property

  30. Hugh

    Most sales of a creative work take place within the first few years of its creation. For popular writers, musicians, artists, film makers, or creators of important scientific/non-fiction works, there can be residual to significant sales which extend beyond this period. But for every JK Rowling, there are tens and even hundreds of thousands of creators for whom this is the case.

    Copyright is, as its name suggests, about “right to copy”. It was meant to encourage creativity for the good of society by giving creators limited periods of protection from some forms of copying so that they could exploit their works. It was not meant to keep works out of the public domain until every last farthing could be extracted from them. Nor was it meant to be some kind of endless cash cow for corporations or a creator’s unproductive offspring.

  31. Ian,

    Yes and No re:

    If the benefits of that extended copyright went mostly to writers that’d be fine. But they don’t, they go to corporations. The copyright extensions came, generally, when Disney properties were about to fall out of copyright.
    If the right’s owned by a corp, it needs to end. And right now the main problem is that you can’t find anyone to give you the rights: it’s in copyright, author’s dead, estate can’t be found.

    The extended AND retroactive copyright protections that Disney (perfect example) received ( ) is an example of corporate welfare.

    Your Disney example classically demonstrates how far our Kleptocraticacy has strayed from free market principals. Corporations do not need to compete, or to create, when the government legislates a captive audience (Disney) captive market (Pharma) or an insider crony open checkbook (Pentagon).

    Why work to steal our $$ when the government will simply take our taxes or wallets and hand them, directly or through regulation, to Comcast, Verizon, Wall Street, Big Pharma, Defense Subsidiaries of companies such as Boeing or to the evil mice at Disney? The great copyright swindle of 1998 (Disney) a blueprint example of D.C. legislating/regulating our money to hand-picked corporate winners. The twisted result of this corporate welfare is these companies, or select industry monopolies, do not answer to competitive markets or competition.

    HOWEVER, this is where I draw the line in favor of the important public policy goal of Pay.The.Writer // Pay.The.Artist.

    For most of our history, copyrights “generally” ran the lengh of a typical adult lifetime. This makes sense. For instance “your lifetime plus 20 years” (and various similar formulea used over the centeries) protects JK Rowling’s books, or Kurt Cobain’s or U2’s music or Robert Maplethorpe’s photos. It allows for royalties and/or up-front payments from corporate publishers who will not otherwise pay to reproduce and sell the artist’s works unless they know it will hold value for minimum number of years. This is crucial to protecting artists and encouraging creativity. I have no problem with Bob Dylan or Howard Zinn being able to sell their rights to a corporation so they can enjoy production and financial reward for their creativity. Allowing corporate publishers to hold copyrights for “your lifetime plus 20 years,” is the type of scheme that meets the ‘reasonable’ test for serving public policy goals.

    I apologize if my comment earlier sounded broader. I in no way respect or condone extended or retroactive copyrights, such as those gifted to major studios in recent years.

    Also, I am ballistically opposed to articles generated within academe, and subsequently published in scholarly journals, from receiving the same type of protection as, say, the protection given to a photographer or singer-songwriter.

    Generally speaking, the academic articles are initially funded by tuition, grants, taxpayer subsidies and they are also a springboard for research teams to reap corporate paychecks, consulting fees and/or career advancement. We, society, have already expended resources to compensate for scholarly journals, and the authors have already reaped their professional rewards upfront.

  32. hvd

    Although I by and large agree with Ian’s analysis there is a problem where the corporation is the artist, as with Disney and with the movie studios that put together the variety of talented people that created the end product. There can be little or no doubt that their creative products could not exist without the corporate “creator.” In this limited sense it seems only fair that all creators are treated equally and be entitled to some protection for the time of their existence (I avoid the term lifetime as corporations are most certainly not persons (they are entities with a state limited license to exist) nor are they alive). The issue is what constitutes creation. In the case of Disney, it seems clear that it is the creator. On the other hand it is clear that the publisher of an article or book actually written by an author is not the creator and should, even where the copyright is assigned by the author, have a copyright limited to what would have been available to the author, let’s say the life of the author plus 20 years to accommodate the concerns of publishers publishing late life works.

    There are problem situations which the law could accommodate such as where the publisher actually plays a significant role in the creation of the work as opposed to merely the publication and distribution of the work.

    The agglomerators of works which are or should be in the public domain (scientific treatises, the law, etc) should not be entitled to copyright, only to a limited protection for the form in which the works are presented. For example West Publishing which, before being bought by an international publisher, was the primary publisher of American (including individual state) law. In litigation that I am aware of they were found to only have protection for the particular pagination and other style and/or organizational principles which they introduced into the agglomeration of this material but not for the actual words.

    This seems to be fair. It allows for other agglomerators or presenters of these words to present them in their own style and form. And this has, in fact, come to pass with most of this material now available via a variety of agglomerators at a variety of prices ranging from free (to the extent that anything in our world is) to very expensive depending on the value added.

  33. Hugh

    Originally, in the US, a copyright lasted 14 years, had to be applied for, and could be renewed for another 14 years. If a copyright was not applied for, allowed to lapse after the initial 14 year term, or at the completion of the second 14 year term, the created work passed into the public domain. So if you wrote the Great American Novel at age 30, that work would pass into the public domain when you were 58. Nothing would preclude you from writing more novels during those 28 years, and their copyright terms could extend into your 60s, 70s, even 80s.

    Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves came out in 1937. A 95 year copyright would mean that it would not pass into the public domain until 2032. A 28 year copyright would have had it pass into the public domain in 1965. I would think even in the 60s, the film would have come across as quaint and belonging to another time. But the point is that Disney had a nice run with it. It could have re-issued the film one last time before its copyright ran out in 1965. It would have missed out, or been forced to compete, when VHS and DVD came out, but so what? It has continued to produce numerous other films and it could enjoy the profits on those in the newer and ever-changing formats. So why hold on to Snow White? Except to extract every last dime from it, even decades after its sell by date (not that the artwork isn’t great). This is true of many other films as well, even the classics. The Maltese Falcon came out in 1941 and Casablanca 1942. Both are iconic, but both show their age. A 28 year copyright term would have Casablanca passing into the public domain in 1970, not the expected 2037. I can not see that as being a bad thing. Let Time-Warner, the successor to Warner Brothers, make its money from something else, not a film that came out 75 years ago.

    Let’s look at recent history. JK Rowling made a billion dollars or more from her Harry Potter series. It is well past its peak, still liked, but receding from view. And you know what? even with a 28 year copyright limit, the first installment, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) still wouldn’t go out of copyright until 2025 and the last in the series Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007) until 2035.

    Or consider Taylor Swift. It seems like she has been around forever. Seems that way to me at least. Yet her debut album only came out in 2006 (yes, I had to look that up) and with a 28 year copyright would not go into the public domain until 2034. And this would be true if she kicked off tomorrow. She has put out several other albums and made a couple hundred million in the process. So why exactly would she or any record company need to keep a copyright beyond this point?

  34. hvd


    Thank you for a very cogent argument.

  35. nihil obstet

    Like all other economic structures, copyright must be justified on its social benefits. I don’t think enriching the few lucky entertainers is the only goal we should have. I’m concerned about freedom of dissent in our propaganda state.

    Gone with the Wind has been in copyright my entire life. Most readers have found it an engaging story of benevolent plantation society with happy, loyal slaves ruined by crude invaders. It continued the depiction of race relations first made popular in D.W. Griffith’s movie Birth of a Nation. These works and many others provided widespread emotional support for discrimination against blacks. When Alice Randall, an African-American author, wrote The Wind Done Gone 65 years later, an alternative view of this social arrangement, Margaret Mitchell’s estate sued for copyright violation and the publisher settled.

    Mattel’s toy the Barbie doll portrays an impossible model of women that many believe to be an obstacle to girls’ development. When Aqua wrote a popular song that undercut the perfection, rhyming “plastic” and “fantastic” and generally making fun of the kitsch, Mattel sued, taking it all the way up to the Supreme Court.

    The hip-hop group 2 live crew was convicted of obscenity in 1989; this got international news reports, and the group got lots of support from free speech advocates. Bruce Springsteen allowed them to play off Born in the USA in a song Banned in the USA. There was wide publicity. Five years later they were sued for copyright violation for a sexualized version of Pretty Woman. Prior to the internet it was next to impossible to follow a lawsuit that didn’t get the media all righteous about the threat to free speech involving obscenity but instead focused on the threat to free speech involving copyright lawsuits. That one went all the way to the Supreme Court as well.

    We could go on, but the basic point is that highly promoted works that may reach a wide audience are not politically neutral. They create an argument, usually for the status quo (despite the way that popular music since the 70s has clung to a self-image of being subversive). Copyright prevents response on a level playing field. Most lawsuits do fail, but so few can afford a legal fight that copyright threats are usually sufficient to chill any serious potential opposition. And I can’t say that I trust our the judiciary these days to stand up for the right to dissent.

    There are a number of other questions about social benefit that we could get into if we had time and energy for an extended discussion. I do suggest looking at Dean Baker’s work, on economic issues.

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