Thursday, 2 December 2010


i'm very happy to to discover recently that a) my old copy of montaigne had vanished and that b) getting a new and better copy from amazon would be a right and fine thing to do.

and it was with montaigne buzzing about in my brain (one day it is true i will do a cypress hill/montaigne spoof) that i got to thinking about copyright and the like with respect to poetry and the like. coincidentally when my big book of montaigne had thudded thru the door it was this passage that it opened to at first glance.

La fama, ch'invaghisce a un dolce suono

Gli superbi mortali, et par si bella,
E un eco, un sogno, anzi d'un sogno un'ombra,
Ch'ad ogni vento si dilegua a sgombra."

["Fame, which with alluring sound charms proud mortals, and appears
so fair, is but an echo, a dream, nay, the shadow of a dream, which
at every breath vanishes and dissolves."
- Tasso, Gerus., xiv. 63.]

and that was followed by the more oft quoted -

Even those who argue against fame still want the books they write against it to bear their name in the title and hope to become famous for despising it.

and while i'm spending more time in on solitude than on not sharing one's fame it was back to these i came when the copyright issue, with specific respect to poetry, came to mind.

it's a funny game poetry, what with being so popular and all, so many readers, so many books sold, indeed in scotland it's almost impossible to walk the streets without some poetry reading going on or some poet coming up to you and rattling off a few lines. it's a great thing that the government invests so much in supporting its poets and artists but one would expect no less given the heightened respect and public love for culture that exists in this little plot of geography.

except of course none of that happens. people don't read it, even less buy it, bookstores don't stock it and publishers won't publish it. and then there's the poets, or as they're known in the collective - a disagreement. yet while i can take all those little divisions - the rhyme/don't rhyme, i know you/i don't know you, the squabbles, the endless positioning and on and on. and on - the copyright thing for me is one that gets me going. now i'm not suggesting that anyone should be able to reproduce a work, or that any organisation or the like should be able to appropriate work for their own ends but this odd position (i'll call it the wendy cope) that you read a poem you like and then stick up on your blog/site/twitter etc is something wrong and you should pay for seems to me like the all too familar (to my generation) home taping is killing music argument. which it didn't. not even remotely. in fact, as far as my own personal experience it spawned an entire generation of people who listened and as soon as they were able bought and talked about a load of music.

imagine then, if back in the day, when you were making up your c90 of top tunes that someone came knocking on your door and said not only that you couldn't but if you did you needed to be paying for it (i'll call that the metallica defence). of course, paying. because the bottom line is the bottom line and it is, was and always will be about the money.

and of course where's there's money, there's power. not being able to put a poem on a blog is one thing but the ramifications are wider and more insidious.

take the case of horacio potel, whom i'll now quote at length

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Do you see your case as part of a wider-reaching debate on the dissemination of and access to culture?

The Internet gives us the means to free ourselves from the clutches of the self-proclaimed cultural intercessors and delegates and to chose our own cultural heritage. This makes the old cultural industry nervous, as does the fact that the dissemination of information is taking place so incredibly more efficiently and inexpensively that ever before, makin the dream of free culture potentially available to everyone.

Nothing is being done to bring 20th century libraries up to scratch. They don't have enough of anything, their stocks are outdated, and at the same time, the libraries of the future are being stifled in their infancy by putting injunctions on librarians. And the ultimate insult is that this is being facilitated by laws with such pompous-sounding names as "the law for the advancement of the book and the culture of reading" which, by defending the monopoly on the right to reproduction, is ultimately rubber-stamping the disappearance of texts and the culture of reading. One should not forget that my trial was intended to close three public libraries. That was the intention of the Argentinian Book Chamber and the cultural attache of the French Embassy. Luckily they failed.

As much as we should avoid the trap of thinking that "the book" belongs to the representatives of the publishing industry, we should also guard against the false belief that copyright defends the rights of the copyright holder. The opposite is the case. Copyright favours the control of our cultural heritage by an ever smaller number of private owners. The copyright is the medium that book-printing corporations use to appropriate the works of writers for purely commercial ends, so that all other companies, and the authors themselves, are robbed of the right to reproduce even their own work. Copyright confers a monopoly on the utilisation of content, and like every monopoly, it prevents competition which could at least bring down the exorbitant price of books. This is particularly pertinent in a country like ours where the majority of philosophy books are printed by foreign companies who compel us to pay through the nose for their products.

Culture, knowledge and tradition are not the work of "authors". It is astonishing that the same gentlemen who carried the enlightened idea of the free and sovereign individual to the grave so as to sell us the consumerism of the subordinated subject instead, are now appealing to the metaphysics of subjectivity with an eye on maximising profits. And it is astounding that they are choosing to do so in a case that involves Heidegger and Derrida who both opposed the notion of creative subjectivity as the origin of the "work" or the "book". There are no privileged atoms which are kissed by the muse and spread light among the passive masses. There are no atoms and the constitution of the "author" grows, like everything else, out of the metamorphosis of things that came before.

Heidegger and Derrida showed that before or in the process of the formation of a subject that calls itself "I", an entire world was already in place, that we are formed before we are, by heritage and tradition, through the passing down and continuation of messages. Moreover, for Derrida everything begins with a summons: with a "come". His "come" is the signal which calls for sending, the first email which calls for the correspondence in which we are already involved, correspondence with an other which is always there. To put an end to this correspondence is synonymous with death, and this is precisely what the militant copyright fundamentalists want to impose on the Internet in order to domesticate it and use it as a tool for selling their own bric-a-brac. But as Derrida said: "I inherit something which I must pass on: this might sound shocking, but there is no proprietary right to inheritance." It is this inheritance that belongs to no one and influences all of us; it is this common heritage on which the new is built which is the focus of the attacks on free culture

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for me the poem, the book, culture should belong to everyone. it begins a dialogue, it gets people talking in a way that mere possession cannot and will not allow.

it's not too difficult to find evangelists for the form in music, art, writing, those people who are not into it for the money, the fame, but who spread the word, that creative effort is a mode of human being that lifts us up and out and into each other. these people, and i'm lucky enough to know one or two, are like saints. they are not about ownership, they are not about permission but about giving people the means. and that is a kind of wonderful.


Titus said...

Hear Hear. Are the last two paragraphs yours? Hear, hear, hear.

If you've got the time and inclination, have a look at Jonathan Lethem's 'The Ecstasy of Influence', here:

swiss said...

thet are indeed mine. i thank you

i shall check out jonathan lethem right now

swiss said...

top essay!

and that thing about salinger! what a dick!

Titus said...

Brilliant, isn't it?

Totalfeckineejit said...

Nice going Swiss, and a disagreement of poets? Couldn't agree more!

swiss said...

i shall copyright the phrase and then charge people to use it. hahahahahahaha!