February 5th 2009 Copyright Ruins Everything

I recently came across a copy of Haruki Murakami’s book of shorts, The Elephant Vanishes, in a Barnes and Noble. As a short story writer myself, I’m intrigued by the craft, as well as Murakami, so I cracked open the book. It just so happened that I turned to the very first page of “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning”. Since the story was only a few pages long, I read it, right there in the bookstore, while leaning against a shelf helpfully labeled “Fiction & Literature” (which, confusingly, also contained works by Stephenie Meyer). A synopsis of this wonderful work of fiction would reveal the entire tale, and fail to do it justice anyway; suffice it to say that I bought the book based on that story alone. Here I am, out of work in possibly the worst economic times in decades, yet I forked over $14.95 because I honestly believed that my life wouldn’t be complete without a copy of that story.

Somehow I knew that my friend Cate would enjoy this story, so I thought about typing it up in an email and sending it to her. I even thought about re-posting it here, since it’s so short. But then I realized that such an act would certainly run afoul of copyright laws.

Perhaps copyright law is just on my mind because I’ve recently read the chapter in Naomi Klein’s No Logo about copyright and trademark abuses as a tool of censorship for corporations. Or maybe I’m still affected by the talk by Lawrence Lessig that I attended last spring. Or maybe it’s because of an article I recently came across, reporting that YouTube, that digital cesspool of user-generated content, removed a video that featured kids singing “Winter Wonderland” due to—you guessed it—copyright complaints.

As a writer, I sometimes find myself on the fence vis-à-vis copyright. On the one hand, I’d like to make some money from my own work (someday, at least); on the other hand, I strongly believe that the dissemination of thoughts and ideas, free of legal encumbrances, is essential for the freedom of society, as well as providing a foundation for the characterization of the ideals and attitudes of our society.

As Klein notes, the symbols of American capitalism are woven into the fabric of our lives. Brand names, logos, slogans, and commercials are as much a part of our culture as books and paintings. The same goes for pop music: from Katy Perry to “Winter Wonderland”, mass-produced pop music defines facets of our society. Unfortunately, due to abuses by the corporate masters of these copyrights, culture is becoming a one-way conduit: we may absorb it, but we’re not allowed to modify, co-opt, or even—in some cases—so much as comment on it. As Klein writes, for the first time in human history, culture is something done to us, rather than something in which we all have an equal hand in creating. Like a third-person narrator, we’ve all become passive observers of the story going on around us.

On a lighter note, artists will always find a way to make money from their creations. Maybe not tens of millions of dollars, but theaters, concerts, and books are as much a part of our culture as Coca-Cola; and like Coke, the experience of these things cannot be easily replicated. I’m a perfect example: although my wallet is slim, I still bought a copy of The Elephant Vanishes. A good artist will always inspire enough people to make money from his craft.