Copyright and Fair Use at the Ann Arbor Film Festival

Just got back from a panel sponsored by the Ann Arbor Film Festival entitled "Remixing the Rules: Copyright and Fair Use." On the panel were two "intellectual property"* lawyers, Larry Jordan and Matt Bower, and two artists, Mark Hosler of Negativland and experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin.

Copyright law and its ramifications are of keen interest to me, not just because of the well publicized abuses from the likes of the RIAA suing music lovers, but because of the many questions and issues copyright raises regarding everything from art, culture, law, economics, and technology to, well, to the human condition itself.

Unfortunately, the panel wasn't particularly enlightening. The discussion did in fact focus on "fair use," the legal concept that supposedly defines when, where, and how copyrighted material may be used without permission of the copyright holder. Trouble is, fair use is such a startlingly vague and imprecise doctrine that, in practice, it often ends up being whatever some self-interested, deep-pocketed media conglomerate says it is. (Don't like that? Spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a lawyer to insist otherwise and hope a court eventually agrees with your view.)

I have an admittedly radical view of copyright: I've come to the conclusion it's a bad idea and ideally shouldn't even exist. (See this great book review cum essay by Jeff Tucker that somewhat mirrors my own intellectual development on this subject.)

So naturally during the Q&A I questioned the whole notion of whether ideas and words could actually be considered "property." I wanted to see the artists, at least one of whom had gone through copyright litigation over his work (Hosler), address the issue at its root. Hosler came pretty close during his talk, but unfortunately one of the lawyers jumped on my question and rambled about what the law says and this and that.

Lawyers, of course, only ever want to tell you what the law is, over and over again, and somehow make it seem legitimate just because it happens to exist or has a history of some kind. And this particular lawyer did just that. Plus he was a regrettably dull if not sloppy thinker, at different points using the non-word "copywritten" and saying that the First Amendment "gives" us the right of free speech. That was just sad.

Perhaps someday we will have a real debate over the ever-increasing absurdities engendered by copyright run amok. Until then, I recommend two great blogs that often address the issues raised by extreme copyright: Against Monopoly and TechDirt. Great reading and great food for thought.

* For an explanation of why I put "intellectual property" in quotation marks, see Richard Stallman's lucid and accessible essay on this loaded and inaccurate term.