A Read-Only Future

This is a video project on copyright I made with Chi Ling Chan for STS 1: The Public Life of Science and Technology (Winter 2012-2013) at Stanford University. The first half of the video consists of remixed footage from Lawrence Lessig’s TED talk and RIP: A Remix Manifesto. Original content starts around the 2:15 mark.

Artist statement

Andrew Currah: “The deployment of digital locks by the Hollywood studios has served to displace, rather than eradicate, disruptive technologies. The emerging result is a bifurcation of a networked environment: the emergence of a closed commercial sphere, and the ongoing expansion of a separate open sphere. In the tussle between the closed and the open spheres, the open has proved increasingly difficult to regulate. It is simply impossible, for example, to prosecute every re-mixed video that appears on YouTube, or every copyrighted content that appears.”

We ask: What if they can?

What if it becomes possible for unregulated profit to claim every jot and title and culture in their religious zeal to expand copyrights?

What if technology enables copyright industries to reshape the Internet and our cultural ecology into a closed system to perpetuate a monopolization over culture?

We imagine a world seen through Google Glass, in which our consumption of ideas and media are subject to the draconian control of unconstrained copyright industries. As it is, we live in a world of digital guillotines, a weird online biome in which culture has moved from a read-write to a read-only existence. The present bloated, punitive legal regime is one that has strayed far from its modest roots of promoting the progress of “science and the useful arts”, a model that works on false presumptions: that thoughts and ideas form in isolation, and intellectual property is a ‘natural right’ of creators that must be upheld independently of the public good.

Technology, while a powerful enabler that can spur creation and and innovation, can also work against the public good if the current copyright regime is not renegotiated. The world depicted here is not that inconceivable if we consider the current trajectory of technological development (Google Glass will be released later this year, and little debate has emerged over its potential uses). We merely took the current state of affairs to its logical extreme.

Good artists copy, great artists steal. We learn through imitation, through mimicry. We are inspired to create by creations of other creators. Thoughts and ideas do not form in isolation, but through collision with those of scientists, artists, craftsmen who preceded us. We reject the notion that creators must be accorded absolute control over the use and remix of their creations because this dangerous idea represents a breakaway from many millennia of tradition and the history of cultural creation. The failure to recognize that intellectual property is not a natural given, and that progress is built on the shoulders of those who precede us will lead us to a myopic copyright regime that ultimately strips the next generation of their freedom to create.

This is a work of fiction which we hope will remain fictional. It is a reminder that the copyright regimes need to be held rigorously in check, lest the open information culture gives way to a closed system where everything is read-only, where access is denied until purchase, and consumers of culture are trespassers who live life against the law.

This is a reminder that we borrow not as parasites, but simply as the next generation.

It is at the heart of what we know as progress.

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