Issue 3/2005 - Net section

Hoping for the Truth

The conference »Copyfight« and the state of the copyright debate

Mariann Unterluggauer

There is an unwritten law for the Barcelonese: no conferences after the middle of July. Feria Agosto is near, and the temperatures climb to unbearable heights, so people are happy to leave the city to the tourists. But Barcelona is changing, and its habits are changing with it. The conference »Copyfight« took place from 15-17 July in the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CBBB). This venue is second only to the Macba and the Caixa Forum as far as guaranteeing the desired attention from the cultural scene is concerned. And »Elastico« evidently seems to need attention: otherwise, would this group, which up to now has never figured in the discussion on rights in digital space in Spain or anywhere else, have taken on board Oscar Abril Ascaso, the curator of the music festival Sonarm, as poster boy?

It was, and remained, a select gathering. Friends among friends, as Lawrence Lessig put it. Whether he meant this cynically or not is a moot point. At »Copyfight«, the peaceful focus was on the music industry, Hollywood, and laws and licenses. No one from the other side came – probably because they weren’t invited – so no one from the other side got to speak either. So people could stress that they didn’t become artists to serve mammon. Cory Doctorow, science-fiction author, weblogger and member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called his talk »How I Make a Living Giving Away My Novels«, but preferred to talk about databases and the threat posed by the Open Mobile Alliance, OMA for short. This organisation plans to control the transmission of television images to mobile devices. When someone in the audience asked Doctorow how he earned his livelihood, he remained curt and answered in statistics. During the following days he was no more to be seen: some people obviously saw the invitation to Barcelona as a prelude to their holiday.

All this altruism between the walls of a museum elicited at least respect from Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Stanford University, who spoke on the second day about »free culture«. For Cory Doctorow was not alone: other artists also felt the need to go to the microphone and announce publicly that they had not become artists to earn money. Lessig said that it was not his place to correct anyone, and that he had not created Creative Commons - a platform for alternative authors’ rights set up in 2003 - to tell artists how they should lead their lives. He had taken action, he said, to preserve liberties in digital space and defend them against the interests of the entertainment industry.
Lawrence Lessig was also the only person to have something resembling a message for the audience in Barcelona: »My message, when I come to friends, is as follows: we must try to persuade the world of something it already believes – that many of the legal restrictions regarding intellectual property do not make sense and that they no longer have anything to do with protecting authors’ rights.« Lessig produced abundant examples: when the author of the book »Darknet«, J.D. Lascia, asked various film companies whether he could use the occasional sequence from films like »Batman«, »Snow White« or »Mary Poppins« in a home video he was planning to make with his son, Universal Studios told him: yes, if he paid nine hundred dollars license fee for every 15-second block. Two thousand, three hundred and forty dollars for 39 seconds and a home video intended only for family viewing. Another example had to do with a student who had set up an intranet with database and search engine for his college. He was sued for 15 million dollars by the Recording Industry Association of America for allegedly violating licensing laws. He had good prospects of winning the case, but even then he would have had to cough up more than 20,000 US dollars for the trial expenses. Money the student did not have. A settlement was reached that deprived the student of his entire savings – 12,000 dollars.

Lessig long ago ceased to believe that courts in the USA or anywhere else are concerned with truth or even simply justice. They are concerned with laws that often enough have no perceptible connection with the one or the other. Drifting a little into pathos, Lessig said that, in the end, only democracy could ensure truth. Rebelling soldiers in the First World War who didn’t fancy being shot at the front probably also hoped for something like democracy – and ended up with a pile of sand at their back and a firing squad in front of their nose. Revolutions do not always go successfully. But the organisers of »Copyfight« don’t have to worry about that anyway. At the CCCB, there was not even the hint of a revolution. Despite the free admission. In the end, the conclusion here was, as we have heard so often and in other places: authors should decide themselves, with the help of Creative Commons or similar licenses, about how their works are used, rather than throwing their creativity at the feet of the entertainment industry.


Translated by Timothy Jones