Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Occupy Blockhead Nation

Eventually, I will get to the point. But first:

I love quotations: Bartlett's Familiar Quotations,17th Edition, is one of only two books laying claim to permanent desk space where I work (the other is a dictionary). Among those whose wit animates a fair share of pages in any book of quotes is Samuel Johnson.

While Johnson is certainly no slouch at dispensing insight and wisdom, e.g.,
  • A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.
  • People in general do not willingly read, if they can have anything else to amuse them.
  • A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.
at other times it seems that his only purpose is to start an argument with me, e.g.,
  • I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.
  • Of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable.
  • No man but a blockhead ever wrote but for money.
That last e.g. really eggs me on. I've been a certified blockhead for much of my life. I did make a pittance for a few years writing program notes for the orchestra I played in--and I do mean pittance (still, it's easier to justify buying beer when you have little extra coming in). But everything else--press releases, professional journalism, novels, lyrics, poems, essays, short stories, blogs--well, I might as well quote Johnson again: "Sir, we are a nest of singing birds." (And remember, this guy detested music.)

While I may be a blockhead because I enjoy stringing words together, I'm no solipsist. What about all those other people who wrote without any expectation of gain? People like ... well, practically any ancient author you can think of; writers seeking new frontiers of style (Joyce, Beckett); legions of academics and scientists with minuscule audiences. Were they blockheads too?

For once I wasn't content to accept the quote as it is. Like any Southerner disposed to goad street preachers into placing scripture in context, I decided to go to the source: Boswell's Life of Johnson. Here's the entire passage, from the events of April 5, 1776:

When I expressed an earnest wish for his remarks on Italy, he said, 'I do not see that I could make a book upon Italy; yet I should be glad to get two hundred pounds, or five hundred pounds, by such a work.' This shewed both that a journal of his Tour upon the Continent was not wholly out of his contemplation, and that he uniformly adhered to that strange opinion, which his indolent disposition made him utter: 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.' Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature.

Here's Boswell pointing out that the "blockhead" quote is a "strange opinion" that he blames on Johnson's "indolent disposition." (???? Maybe Johnson didn't write letters, either--not much in the way of income there.) And the last sentence--"numerous instances to refute this": thank you for taking my side, Mr. Boswell.

Now that that's settled, I can get to the point, which takes off from the fact that the "blockhead" quote turned up as the lead sentence of a book review in the NYT by Jeffrey Rosen (the book under review is Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, by Robert Levine).

According to Rosen, "self-interested Silicon Valley technology companies and their well-financed advocates" agree with Boswell and me. In the other corner, taking Johnson's position, are author Levine and "the media companies that fund much of the entertainment we read, see, and hear."

(The hyphenates "self-interested" and "well-financed" don't apply to the media companies?)

Levine contends that the open Internet model of free video and cheap music (thanks, iTunes!) is winning the match for the blockheads by starving the media companies of financing. Digital Parasites! Destroying the Culture Business! Writes Rosen, "if it continues, Levine argues, the Internet will increasingly become an artistic wasteland dominated by amateurs--a world where music, TV and journalism are virtually free, and where all of us get what we pay for," i.e. says Rosen, Charlie Bit My Finger instead of Mad Men.

Imagine. A world without Mad Men. A real irony here is that Mad Men is about ad execs. If only the  media companies could figure out a way to tap into the advertising revenue that tech companies like Google are raking in. That's what this whole story boils down to. And you didn't even need to read the book. Neither did I.

Also, did I read that right? "Wasteland"? Where have I seen that word before? Oh, but it's different this time. It's the Internet, not TV, and it's an "artistic" wasteland, as opposed to a vast one. Very unlike, say, reality television.

Another thing: an argument that equates Charlie Bit My Finger with bulk copyright piracy needs to ask Charlie to help it sharpen its pencil.

Levine's title invokes the "culture business." Please, let's not equate that with art. Or quality. Does anybody see symphony orchestras getting stronger? Or struggling artists not struggling? The culture business is only interested in what sells. Rosen, presumably echoing Levine, laments that the music industry in 2009 had "$6.3 billion in sales in 2009, less than half its value a decade earlier." Party like it's 1999, music biz, or even better, 1982: take your backlist and re-release it in a brand-new format called the compact disc. No production costs other than manufacturing and marketing! Pocket billions of dollars for doing artistically diddly-fucking-squat! A long view of the history of home video says the same thing: billions of dollars for reaching into the vault and selling backlist products having zero "artistic" production costs.

Much of the story here has to do with copyright enforcement. Part of the solution the Levine proposes, and which makes sense, is already being done in Europe and involves the use of blanket licensing. But what are we doing in this country that Samuel Johnson could not love? A very unloveable thing: copyright enforcement without the involvement of the courts. There is something inherently wrong with copyright enforcement as it is practiced on Youtube. A request from the media companies to take down a video is going to be honored every time by Youtube. The individual poster will have no appeal, even if there is no infringement.

(You tell me: infringement or not? If for any reason Philips didn't like the quote from Love Potion #9--in spite of the fact that its use in a parodic performance is protected--do you think Youtube's going to pay any attention to anyone other than Philips?)

Do you think media companies care? They have already distorted copyright law as it applies to libraries. They don't care about libraries anyway. Using the right of first sale, public libraries have been able to lend materials since their inception, and media companies (oh, I'm sorry: "publishers") see this as stealing from their profit margin instead of a huge marketing platform that costs a pittance. Now, with licensing restrictions for ebooks, media companies (oh, I'm sorry: "publishers") are doing an end-around on libraries. They're looking no further than the initial, direct-to-consumer purchase. Yes, libraries are a fantastic platform for the promotion of authors. But Honey Badger doesn't ... oops, sorry: wasteland intrusion.

Occupy Blockhead Nation.

No comments:

Post a Comment