A Peasants’ Revolt

Apanish village revolts against copyright parasites.

As a follow-on from my post on Google Books, a surreal example of copyright maximalism from Spain. Via reporter Álvaro Corcuera in El Pais; the article was translated for the IHT insert yesterday, which they put on the Web without an archive (why?).

The Spanish performing rights collective, the Sociedad General de Autores (SGAE), is dunning the Cordobese village of Fuente Obejuna (population 3,000) for €12,000 euros in unpaid fees for performances of a play written by Lope de Vega in 1610. The villagers put it on every year, as the centrepiece of their enterprising mini-festival. The specious argument is that these are adaptations, not stagings, which the producer denies. The claim includes this year’s production by a man who isn’t a member of the SGAE and says that he’s happy to cede any rights he may have to the town council.


(Photo F. J. Vargas, El País)

The really piquant angle is that the subject of Fuenteovejuna is a peasants’ revolt against a tyrannical landlord, the Comendador. They kill him and King Ferdinand – after torturing the leaders – lets them get away with it. The villagers are not backing down. “Next year the Comendador will be Ramoncín” (a rock singer on the SGAE board).

What we are seeing on copyright is a peasants’ revolt: disorganised and sometimes badly targeted, but expressing widespread popular anger against undeserved privilege. The maximalists should be running for cover, not engaging in futile provocations.

It’s marvellous the way classic plays still have the power to create trouble. When Declan Donnellan put on The Tempest in Bucharest in 1989, the representatives of Ceauşescu’s decaying government walked out.

!Sí, pasaran!


The advent of Google Books calls for the restoration of non-automatic copyright renewal.

The total number of book titles in the world, according to the head of metadata (geekspeak for cataloguing) for Google Books, “when we counted them last Friday”.

I got this nugget from a splendid post at Language Log by Geoff Nunberg, slamming the very numerous mistakes in the catalogue. Some are hilarious: Mae West: an Icon in Black and White is classified under Religion. More obscurely, Moby Dick comes under Computers. The Google guy admits that “we date one edition of A Christmas Carol from a shockingly pre-Gutenberg 1135″. Google have weirdly chosen to use a primitive booksellers’ coding scheme called BISAC. Dixit Nunberg:

In short, Google has taken the great research collections of the English-speaking world and returned them in the form of a suburban mall bookstore.

The blogosphere at its best.

This is more than an enjoyable catfight between experts. Google has vast ambitions and resources – they seriously mean to scan all those 168 million books and nobody is saying they can’t do it. They also have an unsurmountable head start. So it’s very unlikely that the effort will ever be duplicated, though it may be complemented in particular areas. We have in prospect a monopoly channel of convenient access to most of the world’s writing. How well Google does the cataloguing and indexing, and how it manages access, are important matters. The Google Books Settlement being worked on in US courts will be a cornerstone of the information society.

There is one straightforward change in the law that would improve things: roll back automatic copyright renewal. If you take out a patent, you must renew it from time to time or it passes into the public domain. If you couldn’t be bothered, how valuable can your patent be to you? Up to 1978 in the USA, that was the case for copyright: but then the law was changed to make renewal automatic after a first term of 28 years for works published from then on. The start date was moved back to 1964 by amendments in 1992. At the time, it probably looked like a sensible rationalisation: renewal requires paperwork and a bureaucracy which didn’t then look as if they were achieving anything.

Electronic libraries have changed the equation. With the ever-lengthening life of copyright secured by rights-owners through skilful propaganda and bribery election contributions, you have a huge, and increasing, number of works on the shelves (and now hard drives) of zero commercial value. But these are still legally in copyright, not the public domain. They are called orphan works; and have become a major headache for Google Books, its competitors if any, and their users, as the e-libraries must identify indifferent heirs and secure their permissions to make the books available.

It’s true that restoring renewal would only be a partial solution. It would still leave your Great-Aunt Edna’s Memoirs of a Dakota Childhood (cumulative sales 135) in full copyright for a long first stretch of 28 years: but it would clean up the confusion for the books published between 1964 and (today minus 28 years), viz. 1981. Ideally you should require renewal after 10 years, and backdate it to liberate all the orphans over 10 years old.

The current version of the economically illiterate Berne Convention requires (Article 5.2) that “The enjoyment and the exercise of these rights [of copyright] shall not be subject to any formality”, so the rollback might require a long international negotiation. Still, if not now, when?

The reform would be fought by the powerful copyright lobby and its tame shills. Ex hypothesi the orphans are commercially worthless. The administrative costs for renewal of valuable properties would be invisible for the likes of Disney, so they would have no direct stake. But the reform would underline the fact that intellectual property is not a God-given natural right of les créateurs, but a privilege granted by society in the wider public interest. A dangerous wedge indeed.

Update Follow-on here.

Digital media again/still

The crisis in print journalism seems to be worsening, or at least ripening. It’s not just the incredible shrinking daily paper, but monthly magazines (including Wired, so it’s not outdated content) and it’s not just periodicals but books, and not just print media but music and video.

Us shadetree mechanics always look for one specific failure when a machine acts up: because the odds are so small that you will burn a valve at exactly the same time your timing belt slips a tooth, it’s a reasonable heuristic. Same in medicine: docs look for a particular morbidity that could cause the set of symptoms presented, not simultaneous attacks of flu, shingles, measles and hangnails. A lot of discussion of the media meltdown implicitly adopts this heuristic, asserting this or that single core problem, but here I think we have to put the single-cause assumption aside, because several things are actually going on at once, simultaneous failures in different parts of a large complicated machine.

Continue reading “Digital media again/still”