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May. 21st, 2007


Spoken like a true derivative hack

Arrgh, here we go again!

An author named Mark Helprin (yeah; I've never heard of him either) has written an essay calling for perpetual copyright. He makes the same tired "property" arguments that we've heard before, the same appeal for the "rights" of authors' families to a never-ending stream of income from no work. And his arguments against a public domain are flat-out hypocritical; he has done his share of using what has come before.

One more time, all together now: INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY DOES NOT EXIST. Once something you created is in someone else's head, you don't own it anymore. You can't. "Public domain" is the natural state of a created work; copyright is just a temporary monopoly on distribution.

For instance: Boil Hamlet down to its essentials. King's brother kills him and usurps the throne. Dead king's son vows (and ultimately gets) revenge. It's a good story; as good now as it was 400 years ago. Just ask Disney. They called their retelling of it The Lion King.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of Disney's catalog would simply not exist if not for the public domain. Nor would films like Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You. 99% of art is derivative, and artists need free access to what has come before as a jumping-off point for new works. If you don't have a massive base of existing lore to pull from, you get stale re-hashings of last year's tales that sold well. Go ahead; count the number of terrible sequels to so-so films in a given summer. Hollywood is stagnating simply because they are so concerned with keeping their ideas under lock and key. And if there were no public domain for them to go back to, they would have nothing at all. Keep taking without giving, and soon there will be nothing worth taking.

There is another point that seems to be lost on the advocates of longer copyright. Copyright infringement and plagiarism are two entirely different things, and they need to be treated differently. I would say, based on the creative types I have met over the years, that plagiarism is still considered a taboo. No one is trying to pass off an Edgar Allan Poe story as their own, and yet, since Poe is in the public domain, anyone can publish his stories. You just can't put your own name on them.

Which leads me back to The Lion king as an example. Retelling Hamlet with cartoon lions and Elton John songs without so much as a mention of Shakespeare in the credits, to me, smacks of plagiarism, and is a much more grievous sin than someone copying the DVD of The Lion King. No one who copies a DVD, even if they sell it for profit, is attempting to claim it as an original work.

In fact, the faster something gets into the public domain and the more exposure it gets, the less likely plagiarism is to be successful. You could never pass off Mozart or the Mona Lisa as your own, even though as public domain works you are free to use either one as you see fit, because both are so well-known. And people will still pay to hear a live performance of Mozart, and they will still pay admission to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, even though you can find reproductions of them everywhere. They still have "value" even without copyright.

Perhaps Mr. Helprin can't make money as an author without laws to protect him. And perhaps, neither can I. But I'm willing to bet I can, and will release all my works with some form of "copyleft" on them, and I would be thrilled if I one day saw someone take one of my works and "run with it." (Of course, if applicable, I want my cut, but that is not the issue here.) And I can tell you one thing: because of his odious opinions, Mr. Helprin will never make a dime from me. I won't see Disney films anymore, and I won't read his books. You be honest with me, and I'll be generous with you. You be a greedy asshole, and you'll have to find a way to be successful without my support.

May. 16th, 2007


Working around a problem

Back in March I joined a boycott of all RIAA-produced music purchases. I did not buy anything from any big-media music company for the entire month. Nor the following month. Last week, I bought a CD for a friend's birthday.

That purchase was a mistake, and one that will not be repeated.

I have about four dollars credit left on my iTunes account, and after that, I'm done giving money to the music industry. I will purchase used CDs, or buy indie CDs directly from the artists, but I will never again give one red cent to the RIAA-member robber barons.

And if you jackasses at the record labels want to know why, you can talk to Hal Leonard.

If you're going to be a dick about guitar tablature, then you obviously don't understand or care about music, and you don't deserve to stay in business. You have, as an industry, shot yourselves in the foot. Everyone with any sense knows that you don't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, and your goose is now cooked. So long, farewell, don't let the door hit your ass on the way out.

Oh, and I will never (and have never) download music from a torrent, but I'll keep making mix CDs for my friends. And I'll keep looking up guitar tabs for as long as they're available. You see, I'll never be a professional musician, but I love to play guitar. There are millions of us, all over the world. We are the ones that musicians create music for, not you. You have held human expression hostage for too long, and I, and others like me, will not stand for it any longer.

And MPAA, I'm looking at you, too. Disney exists solely because they were allowed to exploit the public domain, and now they want to take that right away from future generations. So they don't get any more of my money either.

And what of my own creative output? My dream of writing for a living? It's simple. Anything I write for myself will be released under the appropriate Creative Commons license, or similar "copyleft" scheme, until copyright law is torn down and fixed. My work will not be sold or licensed to any corporate entity unless they agree to my terms. (This is mainly to keep Hollywood's grubby mitts off my stories; otherwise I'd just release them straight into the public domain.) If I get an offer to write for someone else, I'll have to carefully check their business practices before accepting. I may or may not become "a success" this way, but I'll have as good a chance as I would within the system (and maybe better), and I won't feel like I "sold out."

Copyright needs to die and be replaced by a more fair and sane system. (Personally, my suggestion would be a twenty-year duration, and only a single person, not a business, can hold a copyright.) But until it gets fixed, well, the human mind is very adept at routing around problems, and copyright, the DMCA, and all of it is a huge problem. So we'll route around it.

Enjoy your crumbling empire, you asshats.

May. 8th, 2007


Don't wait for the movie

I need to get back to writing.

I've been reading Stephen King's On Writing again, which is a wonderful book, not only full of practical advice, but also a fantastic source of inspiration. Reading that book makes you want to write.

Not only that, but while watching the teaser for the upcoming episodes of Heroes last night, I was reminded that the written word is still the only pure form of storytelling there is.

From the sound of it, they're going to try to continue Heroes next year. And ABC is going to stretch Lost out for another three years. Both of those are good shows (though Heroes is way better), but so was Firefly, which got the axe after only eleven episodes and then tried to cram a season or two of story into a single mediocre movie.

Television and film, by their nature, are expensive. It takes a lot of people doing a lot of things to make them happen, and all of those things cost money and all of those people expect to be paid. And all that money has to come from somewhere, and money people don't give a shit about story integrity or characterization. They simply want to squeeze as much "return" out of their "investment" as possible. TV and film have to be a business to exist. Any artistic merit, or good storytelling, or even honest entertainment, that comes out of the process is strictly a by-product of the business. (This is why these industries fight so hard to corrupt copyright laws. They do not see their "product" as culture, only income potential.) Good movies and TV shows happen in spite of, and not because of, the systems that create them.

Writing a novel, on the other hand, takes only time. A fuck of a lot of time, true, but that's all. One person, and many hours, and you have, if the writer is doing his job, an honest, complete, coherent story, a tale almost always told better on the page than it could ever be told on a screen. Even mediocre books are usually more fun than good TV.

And writing makes it easy to include bits that would be impossible to even think about in a movie. Observe:

The place was an Italian restaurant up until two years ago. I ate there once, on a date. I liked it. Dark, candlelit, with red-and-white checked tablecloths and enormous wine glasses. The only thing they left when they closed the place was the espresso machine, which might be why the new owners turned it into a coffeeshop. It's all Edie Brickell on the sound system and chocolate scones on chipped plates now, but underneath there's still a whiff of garlic, a ghost of countless dinners past. There's a rumor that the place used to be a mafia front. I don't know if it's true, but I like to think it is; once, men in suits spoke in hushed tones over ravioli and chianti at the same tables where we now wage war across the colorful continents of a Risk board.

This 140 word paragraph took me only a couple minutes to write, but it includes not only a dsecription of a place as it is now, but also a complete backstory of a place. (The place, if you're curious, is the erstwhile Refinery coffee shop on Superior Street and Second Avenue in Duluth, MN, in about 1993.) How would you incorporate all that into a film? You'd have to build a set, then either have someone blurt out the backstory ("Hey, didn't this place used to be an Italian restaurant?") or make the screen all swimmy, re-dress the set, and use a flashback. More likely, unless the backstory was important, this interesting little bit of color would simply get dropped from a film script. There's just no room on the screen for the tiny details that a writer can add in off-the-cuff whenever it seems appropriate. You can't throw in a little subtle spice, so you have to rely on big bold flavors in the form of lots of action or broad comedy. But all that stuff tastes the same.

Movies, and even more so TV, are generally big blunt instruments used to pound advertising messages into the heads of viewers, and if a little story gets in there, fine. (And if a little meme gets started in there, they'll start shouting "intellectual property" and get all territorial.) A written story is a more delicate tool, a better way of telling a story without the sledgehammer tactics and compromise for the money people.

Don't get me wrong; if I had the chance, I'd sell one of my stories to Hollywood, unless they were certain of mangling it horribly. But I'd know that the book is better.
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May. 4th, 2007


Creepy-cool shit

It's like Dr. Seuss mixed with an old Tool video mixed with the more disturbing scenes from The Wall. And somehow the fact that they're all photographed against a stark white background makes them even creepier.

Check out the sculpture of Stephane Halleux.

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