The Legal Fiction of Copyright (Reading 13)

Joyce writes in Ulysses that paternity is a legal fiction; it is reconstituted, unlike the physical bond of maternity, to maintain cultural standards such as inheritance and lineage. We could make a similar observation about our copyright laws. Ownership is not a fact about our social functions but a useful fiction, one that we construct to ensure certain necessary institutions run smoothly. Just because I do not see copyright as essential, I am not advocating that we completely abolish ownership of any creative content. After all, if we had no ownership of ideas or media, there would no be no capitalist incentive to create anything imaginative at all. Never mind preserving culture, as the Atlantic writer Ben J. Edwards was very concerned about in his article about anti-circumvention and archives, we would not have any cultural production to speak of. At least, copyright laws are necessary if we want to see cultural production within a capitalist system. As much as we talk about how arts and culture engender important values about how to live and love others, the arts can only exist by somehow gratifying the bourgeoise, sitting alongside the pastry chef in that regard.

Given that these ambiguous, constructed regulations on copyright are necessary for any artistic production whatsoever, we have to ask what is the proper balance between capitalist incentive and general access to cultural items. Archives, for instance, are a major weak point for the copyright system. Without making all content universally available, some scholars or interested citizens require access to a wide variety of media sources to understand wholistic patterns or ideas within a generation of creative production. The Atlantic article mentioned that the anti-circumvention laws had been designed around DvD’s, hoping to prevent their wide digital replication. Now we have content that is purely digital, whether they be games, a slideshow, or just a creatively designed website. Archivists should be able to preserve such content, which is more voluminous than perhaps any type of medium in any area, for future study. I do hope we can somehow perform archival work on the internet, although I am not sure to what extent it is possible. Even a small-time website could be updated and revised more times than any major novel. I am increasingly worried that our channels for media are driven by capitalism and passing fads rather than respect for any tradition. Netflix is great if you want to see the show everyone is posting about on Facebook, but it left behind true film-lovers long ago.