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[berkman] Matthew Pearl

Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club, is giving a Berkman talk. Gene Koo (his ex roommate) introduces him as someone doing a form of literary remix. He’s teaching a class at Harvard Law called “Literary Visions of Copyright.” He’s going to talk about the 19th Century copyright battles. [As always, I’m approximating. Matthew speaks eloquently; live blogging generally misses the eloquence.]

The Copyright League consisted mainly of authors who “wanted to rethink and reshape” copyright. James Russell Lowell — poet and president of the League — came up with the motto:

“In vain we call old notions fudge and bend our conscience to our dealing. The Ten Commandments will not budge and stealing will still be stealing.” [Approx.]

“This became a mantra for copyright advocates.” Note the appeal to a higher authority, Matthew points out.The motto compares commercial dealings to an older and higher regime. Writers at the time — Louisa Alcott, Mark Twain, etc. — petitioned Congress in support of copyright. The US laws were pretty much are they are today, but there was no international protection: British authors couldn’t get copyright protection here. This meant US publishers could publish British authors without paying a cent. This also undermined several generations of American authors because a Dickens book only cost $0.25 but a Twain might cost $1.25. (Harper, the publisher, was “the most notorious and proud pirate,” says Matthew.)

Kipling wrote a poem about buccaneers that’s about book poetry, which someone referred to as “bookaneers.” Poe’s “Purloined Letter” is about writing stolen but left in public view, another metaphor for book piracy. Dickens, who called himself “the biggest loser” because of his lost royalties, wrote Martin Chuzzlewit about an unstable American system. Harriet Beecher Stowe sued a publisher for publishing a German translation. She lost the case, and was criticized for being against treating people as property but favoring treating books as property. [Wow. These seem to be separable issues!]

There was tentativeness among the authors supporting copyright, says Matthew. They wanted to protect authors but not crush the laborers who manufactured books; if copyright were introduced, they feared book manufacturing would move to other countries. Also, the lack of international copyright enabled cheap editions, supporting a democratic ideal. Mark Twain and Walt Whitman were especially sensitive to these concerns; Whitman’s Leaves of Grass positioned him as a friend of labor. Dickens was making tons of money on his speaking tour and was painted as greedy for wanting royalties also. Matthew compares this to current attitudes towards rich rock bands. People also argued that we needed copyright freedom in order to alter British texts for American readers, including taking out some of the lords-and-ladies feel. (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is about American hostility to that, Matthew says.)

Matthew says some of the fun of studying this is that the authors are imposing a narrative on the topic. It’s a narrative of natural rights and pirates, even though according to the law at the time, the “pirates” were doing nothing wrong. “They became pirates because that’s what we put into our rhetoric until we believed it.” “All of this gradually wore down the paradigm of a collective ownership of the works.”

Matthew says that we should learn at how we’re creating our own narrative of piracy. E.g., the FBI warning at the beginning of DVDs even though copying a DVD for your own use is legal. E.g., Disney recently bought the copyright to Oswald the Rabbit (its pre-Mickey character) even though Oswald’s first three cartoons are out of copyright and thus Oswald is out of copyright; Disney is shaping the narrative. Google Books is now also trying to shape the narrative.

Q: [me] Were there moral arguments in favor of not having international copyright?
A: The most effective argument was that it would hurt our workers.

Q: What about logical consistency, protecting authors everywhere?
A: There was a different sense of boundaries. We assume a globalized world. But people were not embracing the natural rights argument. Copyright didn’t come out of a rights argument originally, in the Constitution. Someone said it was about copy privilege, not copy right.

Q: (ethanz) In other parts of the world, they make an argument that they need pirated texts in order to go to university. The US violated British copyright when it was developing, so it’s right for India and China to do so now. How would Twain et al. have replied to this?
A: Fascinating argument. We didn’t have a national literature in the 19th C. Moby-Dick was dismissed. All we can do is imitate, it was thought. One argument was that we need easy access to the British texts until we’ve established our own American literature.

Q: Would people have paid more if there were a different copyright regime?
A: They get into the minutia of it in the Senate arguments. There’s no agreement. The introduction of public access libraries in the middle of the century threw the pricing up into the air.

Q: Was there a parallel rhetoric in Europe?
A: There wasn’t much market for American books in England (Cooper and Twain were exceptions), so the British were all for copyright. The government got involved.

Q: Dickens and others acknowledged that they got wider distribution because their earlier books were pirated in the US.
A: Same thing with Google Books: You’re getting attention for your books, especially for books that are out of print.

Q: Did people argue that writers wouldn’t write or wouldn’t share it with the public?
A: Yes. You see this in the Senate hearings. Without copyright, you couldn’t professionalize writing enough to enable writers to earn a living, it was argued. Twain said that writers should go live in England for a bit before publishing to get British copyright protection; he was out of touch with what writers can do.

Q: Initially, copyright protection went to printers, not authors. How did that transition happen?
A: (Simon) In the Renaissance, patrons gained prestige from the affiliation. In 18th C Ireland, Swift was able to prosper without copyright. It’s an interesting to compare cultures that have and do not have copyright protection.

Q: When did we go from writing to being a professional writer?
A: (Simon) It’s hard to pinpoint. [He mentioned a 1774 copyright decision that I missed.]

Q: The audience wasn’t receptive to the economic argument, because it came from rich authors. How about the reaction to the moral argument?
A: It’s hard to say because the public wasn’t a part of the conversation. Women weren’t even part of it.

Q: (cbracy) What was the relation between the authors and their works?
A: Authors still tend to have control over their books than musicians generally do. If you publish a book, you own the copyright. That’s not the case with screenplays: You sell the copyright. But publishers want to reinforce the idea of single authorship; they don’t even like long acknowledgements.

Q: [me] The piracy narrative doesn’t hold up in even on its own terms now; now we can’t even use works we’ve bought all the ways we want, and “piracy” just doesn’t work as a metaphor. Do you see any other narratives around that might work better?
A: The commons? There’s so little discussion of public domain in these 19th C discourses. I’d love to read a history of the concept of the commons (which Louis Hyde is doing).

A: (ethanz) There are developments in the UK that might make Beatles albums public domain in 2012, which will recreate the 19th C situtation in which cheap British imports compete against US music. a: “Sharing” is a counter narrative.

Q: (Gene) You have made a career out of both sides of the copyright issue (i.e., copyrighted works about copyright)…
A: I definitely do feel Jekyl and Hyde about copyright. I’d enforce my copyright if it came up, and we complain when the royalty statements from the Chinese publishers are wrong, but all we can is complain. “I even write the copyright notice for my books.” The notice originally said that no characters are intended to resemble people living or dead.

Q: (egeorge ) How would you feel if I did fan fiction based on your work?
A: I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about that. They’re writing a screenplay of my book, and it’s nothing like the book. I’m getting paid to let them alter my text. If I’m not getting paid, I guess I’d feel that so long as it’s non-commercial, I’d be fine about it. It gets word out about your book.

Q: The difference in prices between American and British was multiples. Why?
A: You wouldn’t have to pay an advance. Competition. And there was variance.

Q: Who’s your next book about?
A: It’s secret.

[Great talk. And a very likable, modest fella.] [Tags: ]

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