Touring the digital through type

Tag: public domain

Controversial Changes to Public Domain Works

by Muskingum University Library

A considerable number of today’s copyfight discussions revolve around the usage of DRM to prevent transformative uses of works, to prevent the sharing of works, and to generally limit how individuals engage with the cultural artefacts around them. This post takes a step back from that, thinking through the significance of transforming ‘classic’ works of the English literary canon instead of looking at how new technologies butt heads against free speech. Specifically, I want to argue that NewSouth, Inc.’s decision to publish Huckleberry Finn without the word “nigger” – replacing it with “slave” – demonstrates the importance of works entering the public domain. I restrain from providing a normative framework to evaluate NewSouth’s actual decision – whether changing the particular word is good – and instead use their decision to articulate the conditions constituting ‘bad’ transformations versus ‘good’ transformations of public domain works. I will argue that uniform, uncontested, and totalizing modifications of public domains works is ‘bad’, whereas localized, particular, and discrete transformations should be encouraged given their existence as free expressions capable of (re)generating discussions around topics of social import.

Copyright is intended to operate as an engine to generating expressive content. In theory, by providing a limited monopoly over expressions (not the ideas that are expressed) authors can receive some kind of restitution for the fixed costs that they invest in creating works. While true (especially in the digital era) that marginal costs trend towards zero, pricing based on marginal cost alone fails to adequately account for the sunk costs of actual writing. Admittedly, some do write for free (blogs and academic articles in journals might stand as examples) but many people still write with the hope earning their riches through publications. There isn’t anything wrong with profit motivating an author’s desire to create.

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Copyfraud, the Corporation, and College Publishing

pointandshootThis posting is motivated by Jason Mazzone’s paper “Copyfraud“, where he investigates copyfraud.  Copyfraud is defined as “claiming falsely a copyright in a public domain work” (3) and after discussing instances that copyfraud is both perpetrated he reflects on ways to alleviate it. Mazzone, an American, generates his account from within the American political and judicial system but his insights can be generally applied internationally to any nation that either accommodates or has adopted US and British copyright principles.

Copyright is intended to let authors receive financial compensation for the works that they create. In the US, copyright exists in an antagonistic relationship with the First Amendment because it limits how people can use words that they have received – an author’s speech cannot be used wholescale by others when they generate their own creative works that are derived or inspired by the author’s work. The only exception to this limitation stem from fair use policies, which assert that small parts of a copywritten work can be used to facilitate discussions between writers/performers. Fair use, however, is a protection that is being banished by corporate groups that are striving to protect their profits and avoid lawsuits rather than encouraging the growth of the public domain.

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