Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Recent reading: piracy as creativity

One of the most interesting pieces I've read in a while: Lawrence Liang, Piracy, Creativity and Infrastructure: Rethinking Access to Culture

Liang argues that Western low-protectionists haven't fully appreciated the relationship between piracy, access, and creation, and that while proponents of remix culture have too readily condemned pure copying, the Access to Knowledge folks have focused their discourse too much on medicines and medicinal (educational) knowledge, rather than access to sources of pleasure, which are also part of human rights. He writes:

One way in which the ‘copyright infringer’ is rescued from the accusation of being an illegal pirate is through an act of redemption, for instance by showing that their acts of infringement actually result in an increase in creativity, and this is often done through doctrines such as the idea of transformative authorship. But then what happens to entire realm of non transformative authorship or the ‘Asian piracy’ which does not necessarily transform but merely reproduces ceaselessly using cheap technologies? How do we read this account of the public domain? While one can understand that Lessig would have to be careful about the ways in which he pitches a reform of copyright law within the context of the US, it is also a little difficult not to miss the linkages in [his condemnation of commercial Asian piracy] to older accounts of illegality in which Asia, where many of accounts of the urban experience in Asia and Latin America have been narrated in terms of its preponderant criminality and illegality. This for instance is particularly true, not merely in the context of the colonial imagination, but also in the ways that cities and everyday life in Asia is understood. While the US has always narrated itself through the tropes of constitutionalism and the rule of law, the crisis arrives, when all of a sudden, the very language of criminality and illegality that accounts for much of the world arrives home in the form of the criminalization of students downloading music… .

[C]onventional criticisms of piracy are premised on narrow ideas of creativity, because of their exclusive focus on the question of authorship and content to the exclusion of infrastructure.. . .

Liang reminds us that creation comes in stages, as Julie Cohen has done: future authors depend on access to a landscape of creative works even if they do not directly and immediately transform those works:

There is currently a lot of excitement about the contemporary art scene in China, and indeed it seems to be the flavor of the month in the global art circles. There are thousands of people who are lining up to join art schools, and one of the Chinese curators had this to say “When you can buy a Tarkovsky film for a dollar, you will obviously produce many more artists”.

The existence of contemporary art and other forms of cultural production are always predicated on the material conditions of the life of its practitioners.. . .

And he ends with a fabulous call to recognize pleasure as a need worthy of recognition for all people:

[O]ne of the problems of piracy seems to lie in the fact that it is associated more with the world of pleasure and desire than ‘pure needs’. In this segment, I will attempt to examine the intersection between the world of desire, subjectivity and the experience of piracy.

Let me begin with an interesting story, which is a typical example of interventions in the field of the digital divide. An NGO in Bangalore that works in the field of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) was conducting a workshop on accessing the internet for the information needs of rural women trainers. The facilitator guided the women through the basics of the internet, on accessing information relevant to their work ranging from rural credit to women’s health. The training was highly appreciated, and all the women volunteers seemed to be enjoying themselves fiddling with the computer and exploring the internet. At the end of the training, when the NGO started cleaning up the computers including the history and the cached copies, they were a little aghast to find that most of the women volunteers had been surfing pornography, and a range of pornography at that. So while the trainers were holding forth eloquently about the real information needs of the poor, the poor were quite happy to access their real information needs.

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