Saturday, March 2, 2024

Louis Menand on Copyright and Why We Can Survive Without “Motown”


The copyright argument is not really a philosophical battle, but rather a battle between interest groups. This, Louis Menand argues, is really what drives us to blog about and argue over piracy, appropriation, court opinions, and anything and everything copyright. I have to agree.

In this week’s New Yorker, Menand, a Harvard professor, gives a great primer on copyright law. He then focuses on the two main philosophical rationales for copyright protection (Anglo-American and European), and with a surprising twist, explains how the European conception of copyright is in fact much stricter than the Anglo-American version. This is going to come as a huge surprise to many, especially those that love to trash the U.S. and American law.

What’s the main difference between the two? Moral rights, Menand adds, stemming from a French and German desire to assert their cultural superiority while simultaneously fending off the crass commercialization and commodification of culture.

On this point Menand quotes Peter Baldwin, professor of history at UCLA (whose book, The Copyright Wars, Menand is supposed to be reviewing), “Copyright’s evolution is often told as a story of American cultural hegemony,” he says. “In fact, the opposite is more plausible.”

Call it moral rights or call it European, copyright is a battle of interest groups (I think Clancco’s interests are quite evident). Copyright isn’t killing creativity any more than it’s keeping me from blogging, making art, viewing art, tweeting, teaching, or reading the New Yorker. Is it keeping you?

Menand emphasizes this by adding that we, as a species, can probably survive without Motown (whose copyrights William Patry laments are in limbo due to overly strict American copyright laws).

But people aren’t going to stop writing and reading novels, or making and listening to music. The analog-era industries will find—they are already in the process of finding—a sounder business model. For the rest of us, less is at risk. The species can survive without cheaper copies of Mickey Mouse cartoons and “Finnegans Wake.” It is hard to write these words, but the species can probably survive without Motown.

If we can survive without Motown, we can certainly survive without most appropriation art.


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