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Петък, 15 Март 2013 00:00

The Culture of Flows: Authors, Users, Pirates

Ivaylo Ditchev

Abstract: The de-institutionalized digital world affects profoundly the institution of the author. The open character of the web makes it difficult to impose the old type of exclusive ownership of the work of art; the undermining of political power by free circulation undermines his role of challenger of this same power; as a guarantor of the meaning, the author is evermore marginalized by the corporations of cultural industries. The web seems to fully realize what Barthes had called the birth of the reader that can only happen at the expense of the death of the author.  

 

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”

Jim Jarmusch, The Golden Rules of Filming

What does authorship in the field of culture actually mean? Shakespeare used to rewrite plots that had been repeatedly put on stage in Elizabethan England; a jazz musician would improvise on someone else’s well-known tune; a folklore legend matters precisely for the fact of not being made up by a concrete individual. There is no way of producing an aesthetic meaning unless you build on something somebody else has already done – develop it further or discard it. Only in the world of Kafka a lawyer would calculate exactly how much you owe for using this accord or that metaphor.

“Disney” mobilizes a lot of juridical energy to protect its rights, but isn’t such appropriation of the world’s fairy tales by one private company somewhat problematic? Shouldn’t someone making a screen version of the “Iliad” be more humble when claiming authorship? Imagine for a second that Homer – be him an individual or a collective – had been an American, and his family had extended copyright on epic works back to the 8th c. B.C. Borges, master of the a-absurdum reasoning, tells us the story of “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, where a writer decided to rewrite the great novel, copying it word by word. Although identical in content, the work, according to Menard, would be richer than Cervantes’s, since it was going to be read in the light of all the events that had taken place between the 17th and the 20th century, the scientific revolution, the Holocaust, etc. We could rephrase it like this: the creative act is not only text, but also context; in order to comprehend it, we need to take into account who, where, why, under what historical circumstances produced it. As we know from semiotics, text is finite, whereas context is infinite, hence the fundamental inadequacy of the legal effort to capture authorship in a law.

The privatization of the intellectual product in the field of science seems even more ridiculous. If anyone, who argues for or against the Redshift Theory, testifying to the expansion of the Universe, first had to ask for permission from the Hubble heirs and pay them a copyright fee, astrophysics would not exist as we know it. Science distinguishes between a research which needs to be made available to all for the advancement of knowledge, and a patent which is exploited commercially by those who register it. A scientist receives a salary, awards, recognition, invitations for lectures; the owner of a patent is an entrepreneur who makes profit out of implementation. Two different but equally important lines of work (although today the latter seems to have overshadowed the former in view of the general commercialization of the world).

The patent is normally something practical, if not industrial, but do we know where to draw the line? In the 19th century the Englishman Talbot thought of the photographic technology he had invented in terms of a patent and tried to make money out of it; on the contrary, Daguerre’s invention was bought out by the French government and declared a “universal gift” to mankind, because the members of the Parliament thought it was part of fundamental knowledge, which needed to be made available to all. Talbot died in oblivion; the ‘daguerreotype’ conquered the world. The dividing line was problematized in a similar way a century and a half later at the unraveling of the human genome, which was patented first, then, in 2000, the U.S. government decided to make it public, so that now anyone can download it from the Internet. I mean that even in the rigorous field of science, the issue of intellectual property is a matter of political battling. What should we say then about culture!

Fragmentation of the author on the net

In his renowned text “What is an Author?” Michel Foucault refers to the author as a function which enables us to better understand the work (Foucault 1969/1994: 796). This function allows us to classify cultural forms, to inscribe them into social circulation, to trust, or, on the contrary, question them. The more general question here has to do with the subject of human behavior: do ‘I’ talk, or, to put it in a Nietzschean way, does ‘it’ (the talking itself) talk?

The author according to Foucault has come into being at a specific historical moment and will probably disappear at some point, as Man himself who “would be erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.” (Foucault 1997: 387) We would no longer need to believe that there is human agency behind the work, that someone has conceived it from start to finish, assuming the responsibility for it.[1]

ID_1

Ill. 1. Banksy – stolen Picasso quote,
Banksy Versus Bristol Museum Summer Show, Bristol 2009.

Is the Internet age bringing us closer to the end of the author?

Everyday observations of the practices on the net seem to corroborate such a finding. The unbelievable lightness of appropriation, alteration and sharing allows for a huge amount of anonymous information to circulate on the net, including forms which we define as artistic and which seem to no longer need a ‘father and creator’ in order to be understood. On the Internet, they exist in some kind of natural state and it is hard to explain, especially to younger users, why it is mandatory to cite those whose thoughts are used. All the same, imagine what it would be like if the hundreds of millions of schoolbooks in the world had to offer utterly original texts each and every time (Blum 2008)!

Yet, we can say exactly the opposite, too: never before have we lived with so many authors. There are names, trademarks, and products of intellectual property circulating on the net, some of them strictly protected, others, less so, and yet others – subject to mass piracy. Technology has made it possible for authorship to be ascribed automatically to every single text, even to the most frivolous sliding of the finger across the touchpad: the machine will attach to it the computer’s IP address, the geographical location, the minute and the second of occurrence.

Due to the profound deinstitutionalization of the contemporary world, the boundaries between the artistic and the non-artistic, between information and literature, between politics and art are becoming problematic; I am not going to insist on them here. In this text I am simply going to examine authorship in three functional aspects: ownership, public responsibility and interpretation.

The author as an owner

Several types of interests collide in the battles over the copyright like authors vs. publishers, producers vs. consumers.[2]After the advent of the printed book, it was the publishers who held the monopoly on sales and profits. In the beginning of the 18th century in England (The Statute of Queen Anne) and after the French Revolution in France (the Act of 1793), states started protecting the rights of the writers with the understanding that this would promote the development of culture. In contrast, throughout the entire 19th century America defied the copyright since most of the books printed there came from England, and paying royalties to the former metropole might jeopardized the development of reading and education. Gradually, however, the interests of both types of owners took the upper hand over those of the consumers. The 20th century witnessed the expansion of copyright in terms of its span, it becoming a default characteristic of the work rather than an act of periodical renewal[3], and its scope, as more and more aspects of cultural production fell under it.

What is the outcome of such privatization of culture?

One of the most striking things about the virtual world is the mass violation of copyrights by users, combined with a regular voluntary waiving of copyrights by a large part of the content creators on the other. The technical aspect of the problem is obvious in as much as the digital information has no original (it can be copied without a loss) and its keeping safe at a given location is becoming increasingly difficult. On the other hand, the open world makes tracking down a pirate who has stolen the works of a given author more and more difficult: along with the advancement of digital police, the freedom-loving citizens are coming up with more and more sophisticated strategies for covering up their traces by making use of the controversies in the political and legal setup of the global world.

To resume. We have shifted away from the world of deficit to the world of oversupply owing to the instantaneous access to all the world’s market stalls. Instead of producing rare and unique objects of demand and desire, technological aesthesis is attacking the attention of the consumer in reckless competition with images, sounds, stories. The irritability threshold has naturally risen; the consumer is becoming more and more blasé[4],  like Simmel’s big city dweller, bombarded with a growing number of stimuli. The impact of the individual work lasts shorter, its reception is more superficial; on the other hand, the number of the works consumed is on the rise. The old cultural machine is unable to cope with the new gargantuan demand. In France, it is estimated that only 1 percent of the titles consumed on the net are legally sold; hence, the unrealized (yet symptomatic) idea to sanction only the piracy of the titles which can be legally purchased.[5]

Let me give an example from my own practice: on the average, I browse through 10 to 12 Bulgarian and international newspapers daily, plus 3 to 4 journals, not including news websites, video clips, tweets. If I had to pay for it, it would have cost me my monthly salary! True, I only skim through some of the newspapers, having a look at one article, skipping the others, but how are we to account for this superficiality in the old financial terms? Is it possible at all to put the genie back into the bottle, i.e. to take the consumer back to the time when he used to subscribe to one newspaper and read it all through? It’s the same with movies and with music video clips that young people listen to in their mp3 players while doing other things.

The very quantity of the cultural products consumed changes the relationship between author (seller) and consumer (buyer). Most probably, conceiving digital cultural products as objects should be replaced by thinking of them in terms of flows: the consumer subscribes to a certain flow the same way he subscribes to cable TV. But then, again: what about the flows we are not subscribed to? How to regulate the relations between the territories, covering such subscriptions? (I’ll come back to this point later).

The second question is why authors themselves are willing in many cases to make their works freely available on the net? The choice here is between becoming famous and making money: in the deinstitutionalized world of oversupply there is no other way of becoming famous except for offering your work for free; when you get famous enough, you can start making money off it (Mason 2008). This banal truth has been known to artists for quite some time: “work for your name, then your name will work for you”. In the Internet age it can be rephrased like this: let them steal from you, then they’ll start paying to you.

At a closer look, things are more complex. The classical career path of the penniless artist who becomes famous thanks to his selfless work and later starts selling for millions, does not necessarily explain the Internet. Today he/she is paired with other figures: e.g. the project-artist, who generally publishes his work freely on the net and then lives off sponsorships or grants. In America a blogger like Henry Jenkins even today, at the top of his fame, generously keeps spreading his ideas for free, which helps him selling his books and lectures. On the contrary, a Bulgarian blogger can’t practically count on any substantial revenue: his profit is only ideal, i.e. prestige which might translate into being employed, say, in the traditional media or in politics.[6] Just as in Borges’ story, the point is who, where, and at what moment does the writing.

The Internet intensifies the inequalities between people and contexts. Furthermore, it transforms the ideal capital, that offline we call “prestige”, into an autonomous competitive field, thanks to the quantitative commensurability and the possibility for capitalization. Let’s look at these things from yet another perspective. Most of the planet, including a country such as Bulgaria, lives in constant violation: the practices of piracy, the unauthorized referencing, the unsettled intellectual rights, etc. are constantly at odds with the legal norms imposed by the global exchange. Those who take a normative stand on law normally tell us that sooner or later the rules will start being observed. Even if so, the fact is that for an unforeseeably long time most of the humanity will keep getting round the rules. And we have here the oldest, pre-modern form of inequality: the master is righteous in his right; the subordinate is guilty by presumption, and can be detained and punished at any time. The hope of the majorities at the periphery is that so many offenders cannot be all sanctioned; a few will be caught to serve as an example and the rest will continue living in the grey zone.

Let me just outline the new battlefront opened by the civil society against the privatization of culture, with projects such as the ‘Free Software Foundation’ or the ‘Creative Commons’. Just as in any political battle, the basic means for drawing in the masses is either the disinterested gift (giving away for free one’s own labor, mutual aid, solidarity), or a sort of sacrifice, i.e. the heroic act of risk taking.

Digital privatization of culture widens the inequality gap between us and the ‘ancestors’: at any time, we can be caught in plagiarism, in stealing things from the “machine” that have occurred to someone else before. At this very moment, I’m running a search with the title of this article “the fragmentation of the author” and get four academic hits for it. Bulgarian language protects us to some extent, if I had searched in English, I would have had thousands. Refusing to read them, I go back to the text.

The author as a rival to the authorities

The problem with the author, according to Foucault, comes up when the authorities ask: “Who are we to punish for these words?”. There had been a profusion of stories, myths, and images, circulating in culture for centuries, but no one needed to know their source, unless they challenged the existing order. It is precisely at this moment that it becomes necessary to attach a vulnerable body to the ideal (i.e. invulnerable) cultural form, a body for power to exercise its horrible revenge.

ID_2

Ill. 2. Michel Foucault, Fearless speech, Semiotext(e) 2001.

In the gradual emancipation of discourse, image, and sound, that body is mythologized due to the parrhesiastic act of rising up against the authorities. A basic resource in the construction of the author’s function becomes the narrative of the heroic act of resistance, the challenging of the established order, the suffering endured as a result of this audacious act. The author – the renaissance painter, the 18th century philosopher, the 19th century realist writer, the 20th century intellectual – gradually becomes a symbolic counterpoint to rulers; he either makes allies with them, or on the contrary, confronts them, as to score a symbolic victory, even when practically loosing.

Here is the paradox of the Internet: this is a space where, by definition, there is no censorship, or to be more precise, where censoring becomes an increasingly complicated, expensive and futile effort, an effort that the authorities, at least in the developed world, are about to give up. The ideological borders have already collapsed with the end of the Cold War; globalization has turned the ever more active participation in the global exchange into a matter of life and death. Still, the major difficulty for old-style censorship is the vast amount of growing information on the net.[7] Accessible forms of publishing multiply the number of authors, potentially subject to censorship; in 2011, for instance, public blogs in the world totaled 160 million, i.e. one out of every 42 inhabitants of the planet had a blog! The only way for the authorities (in countries such as China or Saudi Arabia) to control this new universe is to work with keywords associated with the prohibited content. This, however, dehumanizes the figure of the author, reducing heroic parrhesia to formal statistical procedures.

So, if there is no prohibition to fight against, nor punishment to risk, how can you obtain your fame as a father and master of the work? On the one hand, this is perhaps what the general leaning of the artistic ideas to the right in the postmodern age is rooted in.[8] The heroic avant-gardes, engaged in a skirmish with the conservative and the reactionary, have now given place to the postmodern expert in artistic matters, who haughtily refuses to get involved with the common people and toys with historic styles, unfathomable theories and sophisticated techniques. On the other hand, the author is compelled to radicalize his/her actions, resorting to the scandalous, the irrational, the overtly anti-social. A third course of action is simply renouncing to authorship, taking the side of the amateur whose primary source of making an aesthetic impact is the openness and the genuine human presence.

The net generates civic passions, referred to as \'shitstorm\': one of the reasons being the shield offered by the possibility for anonymity (incorporeality, disguise). The WikiLeaks case, and particularly the scandal with the U.S. diplomatic cables in 2010, gives an idea of the fate of civic responsibility on the net. WikiLeaks is a machine for making the citizens anonymous: the platform makes so that even its owners do not know who the information source is. What is more, the trust in the platform is reinforced by the outrageous attacks of the authorities against it.[9] On another level, the messages of the voluntarily anonymous fighters are centered and appropriated by the figure of the meta-author Julian Assange – the one who will be punished for the leaked words. That is how the new author function operates: on the one hand, there is a crowd of nameless volunteers, on the other, an author of a new kind who does not produce, only manages flows.

ID_3

Ill. 3. The creation of Homunculus, an illustration from Goethe’s “Faust”, 19th C.

The author as a guarantee of meaning

I’ll look into the most difficult issue at the end. Up until now we have needed the author function to classify and understand the work. If we concur with Paul Ricoeur, the need for this function creates the particular communicative situation in which man found himself in the transition from spoken to written speech. The absent speaker in written speech calls forth the need for projecting some ideal subjectivity beyond the text, some agency which upholds the meaning consistently, and whose messages I, the potential ideal reader, am trying to grasp (Ricoeur 1976).

Just how little this belief corresponds to the actual readership practice is known to every author: when writing down a sentence, you are not yet quite sure what the next one will be; the act of authoring is a process, not a state, as it seems when we look at the book as an object. Experiments such as the automatic writing or the stream of consciousness confront us to this fact. The notion of the text by Roland Barthes, another well-known expropriator of the author, offers another theoretical insight. A work (oeuvre) is given to us as a totality, sculpted once and for all by its godlike creator, in this sense it has a mythical character; on the contrary, the text, i.e. the reality of the literary practice, is the intertwining of different voices, ideas, styles (“text” has an etymological connection to “textile”); the empirical writer puts his name under something that is his own work only in the sense that he has become the site where the threads cross. The author is a place, not an agency (Barthes 1984: 69-77). We find this theme yet in Mikhail Bakhtin (1920s / 1979) who sees the “I” as the interiorized other; the voices inside me are the voices of the others, whose authors are forgotten. In this perspective, authorship is always relative; it is a concrete moment in the process of the slow and inevitable cannibalization of the others.

Let us now backtrack to the communicative situation the digital world has placed us in: multimedia makes the author both more alive, and more absent.[10] Take YouTube. The fifth most watched video of all time (as of 2011) is amateur-made. It falls in the genre of “cute baby videos” and was named “Charlie bit my finger – again”[11]; the baby biting his elder brother’s finger was watched by 300 million people.

 

This amateur video has no authors in the real sense of the word. Still, we have the YouTube platform whereby a meta-author agency, in this case – the trademark – organizes our gaze, positions the video in a framework of expectations, makes it a cultural fact. Besides, we have a ranking system which organizes the users’ tastes and orders them according to rating, so that the video of the biting baby pops up next to videos of Eminem and Justin Bieber.

The author function is broken down into three parts: an authentic amateur, a super professional enterprise, and a ranking mirror. Each of these new subjects plays the part of the author function which facilitates our understanding. 1) Making a video of a baby: the more authentic and unprofessional, the more real. 2) The YouTube trademark: the more commercial it is, the more certain we are that it offers us good quality. 3) The ranking mirror: the more “likes” we generate, the more “likes” we are going to generate.

More ambitious projects can be based on this principle. In 2010 YouTube launched “Life in a Day”[12] in which amateur users were invited to send in videos presenting an ordinary day in their life. This call had an unusually big success and the company was bombarded with 80 000 works from 140 countries from around the world. Later in 2011, the shortlisted and slightly edited clips were to be released as a movie of a new kind, made entirely by amateurs, yet pulled together by the director Kevin Macdonald and the producer Ridley Scott who appear to be authors of a second order.

Such an interaction, however, may create conflicts. The case with Ivo Siromahov, scriptwriter of Slavi’s Show, accused by the Bulgarian internauts of using their tweets in his texts, could serve as an example. These are jokes without an author; jokes are anonymous works, they are told from mouth to mouth – retorts the author under attack.

The case brings us back to the issue of the privatization of culture discussed above. True, when we tell a joke, we normally mention the person we have heard it from; true, in a given circle of friends there is something as a family-copyright on jokes that are supposed to be told by the person who brought them in. The thing is that unlike the orally told jokes, tweets have explicit authors (such as Nikolay Stoynov=@stoynoff; Boyan Pishtikov=@arhivatora), automatically attached by the machine to the one who is writing. In this sense the situation seems to be somewhat different.

“Tweets are literary works, says the lawyer Radoslavov commenting the case, Anything that consists of more than one word – if you put two words together – this already makes a text, and there is copyrights on this text, and this copyright comes into being the moment when someone posts a status in Facebook or in Tweeter… A tweet in my Tweeter profile is obviously mine without my signature underneath.”[13]

I wonder why two words, why not just one? Why not two letters put together, or two sounds? Why don’t we ascribe authorship to words pronounced with a certain face expression, to keep up with the “visual turn”?… As you can see, the author’s privatization of culture is unlimited.

In the middle of the wave of digital discontent Dimi Kostadinov compiled an online book[14] with derisive tweets against Siromahov, i.e. if the use of digital folklore is meta-authorship, here we climb up yet another level: counter-meta-authorship.[15] At the root of the discontent, of course, was the fact that Siromahov himself was profiting from the privatized labor of others.

Besides the difficult juridical and moral issues discussed, I would like to underscore once again that the new technology makes possible the authoring of even spontaneously circulating jokes and teasers. This opens up a new battlefront between the authors of the first and second order. In the “Life in a Day” case this battle is solved through peaceful negotiation, by turning the primary authors into subcontractors of the secondary ones; in the case of Siromahov – through a rebellion of the former against the latter. In both cases – the successful and the unsuccessful cultural franchise – the author function is fragmented, as one produces the raw material, another one shapes it and sells it. On the first level we have quasi-anonymous amateurs whose authenticity we value, on the second – super-commercial professionals.

Still, how far could the appropriation of culture go? The copyright on “two words put together” is turning ridiculous; the same goes about two notes put together, the façade of a building in the public space, or a photograph in which you recognize someone’s face. This puts to question not only the practice of cultural remix today, but also the more traditional jazz, if not art in general, as far as the artistic act is always based on a reality that has already been signified, impregnated with meaning by somebody else before me.

If we were to take a more general perspective on things, we are entering a world where the good old author needs to ask for permission for what he/she is doing all the time – either by signing formal contracts, or simply by being careful not to make angry those whose primary material he/she makes use of. This appears to be a pitiful end to the individualizing civil and creative freedom that the modern age has brought along, a step back to total folklore in the sense of control of the group over the individual, conformity, “propriety”.

Let me also underline the role of technical fetishism, to a great extent strengthened by the new digital environment. In a sense, the creative process has been always inspired by the discovery of new means of expression. In olden times, the artisan’s secret of mixing the paint was worth more than the composition of the painting itself; the Beatles recall that they used to write a new song with every new accord that they got familiar with; Moholy-Nagy exhibited the outcome from his experiments with photo exposition… In the Internet world, techniques, until recently inaccessible, become available to the amateur. Photomontage, for instance, which aroused the imagination of the pop artists, can be practiced by anyone today with the help of some basic software, and has even become a matrix for children’s educational games. Who is the author proper in this case: is it the new technology or the human subject using it? Take gaming, for instance: on the one hand, you have the invention of the characters, the strategy of the player, the coalitions and the communities; on the other, there is the game technology which is interesting, producing aesthetical effects in itself. Contrary to chess, which has been played with unchanged rules for at least a thousand years, digital games need to be constantly developed further, made richer and more varied. The place of the author (who is also thought to be masterfully practicing certain skills) is now taken by the masterful technique itself, detached from the subject.

In the last perspective to the problem I will resort to Barthes once again, more specifically to his Musica Practica (Barthes 1977), a text which examines the amateur act of playing music at home as a sui generis act of authorship.The same goes about reading a text, weaving together the various threads in it, contextualizing: the actual author is in fact the reader who crafts a unique aesthetic experience out of the potential fabric of the discourse.

The death of the author is the price to be paid so that the reader could be born (Barthes 1968/1984: 67). The network, or, let’s put it in more general terms – the culture of oversupply – makes more and more conspicuous the shift from author-creator to author-user, discussed by Barthes. In the 1930s, Benjamin dreamed of writing a book based entirely on quotations from other books; paradoxically, his unfinished work on the Parisian covered passages fulfilled this intention.[16]

Unexpectedly, his idea materialized in the practices of cultural consumption on the net. The internaut surfs from site to site, creating a unique route of his own, individualizing himself in the digital infinity. A variety of machines reify his/her trajectory: you can upload it on social bookmarking websites, you can forward it to a friend, and even get rated based on it. Who is the author when we come across, tag, forward something interesting found on the net? The new consumer authorship “from below” is becoming more and more objectified as I tried to show in the examples above: for the time being the Internet platforms are making use of it for free to mobilize the interest of the users. But, who knows, perhaps soon surfing too will start laying copyright claims. For, the very moment something gets objectified, there is already a possibility at hand for its privatization.

The copyright battles

For the last decade or so one of the most active mobilizations of Bulgarian civil society, and particularly of its younger strata, has been the resistance against the periodically renewed attempts to impose control over the intellectual property on the net. Mass protests followed the attempts to close down servers for illegal content sharing such as “Arena”, “Zamunda” and “Chitanka”; an unprecedented number of people – 6000 – protested and succeeded in making the government withdraw from the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) (2012). At the root of such sentiments is the ideal of free use of culture, stigmatized as piracy and jeopardized by the advent of the author-owner, discussed above. This fear is particularly strong in poor countries such as Bulgaria, Poland[17], or China, where it is the basic means for making up for the cultural backwardness. The backlash against the enforcement of the intellectual property right is most often motivated by a concern for our personal data that would be put to risk by the unregulated control over our computers. I dare say that for the young Bulgarians this liberal issue is a smoke-screen: I have interviewed a lot of young net users and I am rather surprised that the fear of being abused or tracked on the net is so low in our country. People fear not for the freedom of thought but that they would be forbidden to share and use digital culture. There simply isn’t an adequate language available to use – you can’t stand up and proclaim: “I am a thief and I consider it to be my human right”. Still, who are those who declared the larger part of humanity thieves? Wasn’t it the ones who extended the copyright over “two words put together”?

It seems that the net, which we have tended to examine as a new public space[18] for the past ten years, is becoming fenced off, just as it happened with the common pastures in the Tudor period. In those times, the peasants were driven out of their land because of the private sheep breeding for the weaving industry; hundreds of thousands were left without a way to make their living and took to begging, or emigrated to the New World. As Thomas More wrote in “Utopia”, the sheep, otherwise meek and docile animals, started to devour people and to depopulate not only villages but entire towns.

The fencing off of the digital commons – if it does take place – carries the risk of bringing about the same cataclysms, the same digital villains, the same “working houses” for re-education of the vagabonds, the same migration in new Internet worlds.

Eventually, the politicians need to realize what has happened: the citizens of the global world have started living by what André Malraux once referred to as the “right to culture”. In 1966 he argued in front of the French Parliament that what Jules Ferry had done for education in the 19th century needed to be done for culture then – to guarantee free and universal access to it for the citizens.[19] In the Internet age these somewhat abstract words assume a tangible reality – only that instead of waiting for state politics on culture, the users have forced their way into it by themselves.

Intellectual property is not something natural: it is a relation assumed by society as a balance of the interests of those who make culture, those who re-sell it, and those who consume it. Agreements such as ACTA today testify to the titanic battle between the different corporation types – the old recording, publishing or filmmaking right holders that produce culture in an industrial way, and the new digital platforms that make money off its downloading and sharing.

How are we to define the interest of the user? How, for instance, are we to draw the line between cultural products which should be made public, and those which are commercial entertainment? It seems obvious to me that Fellini’s “And the Ship Sails On” must be freely available to anyone, whereas you may as well be made to pay for “Titanic”. On the other hand, however, on what grounds are we to take away from the (heirs of the) great director, and make the mediocre one rich? Even bigger difficulties are brought about by the endeavor to differentiate between the public and the private interest in the domain of trademarks. Let us acknowledge the fact that the Coca Cola formula will forever remain private property but does it have to be the same with the cure for malaria?

The problem is not in the adapting of the business model to the digital world, as it is often argued. The very notion of culture has radically changed: a huge number of people have invaded it; its consumption has multiplied. If the Bulgarian consumer has to pay for every pirated film he watches, he would have to work only for that. You might recall how 5-6 years ago Murdoch’s latest desperate attempt to make us pay for information: as I observed above, the way we read newspapers has changed – instead of subscribing to one and reading it every morning from cover to cover, I surf through various platforms, I move from one article to another, from text to video. A subscription would tie me to one single source, which seems unfair, and to pay for all the publications that I browse through is simply impossible. Well, that is precisely the way it works with culture today – much more of it, much faster, and much shallower.

All in all, the distinction between the right to being informed and the right to having access to culture exists only in the minds of the theoreticians: you have to hear the new song by the prize-winning Adele right away, you have to watch along with the entire global audience the new Academy Awards ceremony. Is this information or culture? Perhaps a new term is needed: being up to date, being in. Imagine the Bulgarian user being excluded from the cultural flow he is part of thanks to his pirating; becoming a second-class citizen of the world. The same way we happen to be second-class in the academic circles, as we normally have access to 2 to 5 year old academic publications, and we ask our friends from abroad for their library passwords. The right to culture is hard to be taken away, for it has come into being as a result of a long historical process which went through the opening of royal gardens to the public as public parks, the transformation of palaces into museums, the public policies of support for city squares, festivals, public art.

If you follow my line of reasoning, you would understand that there is no right solution here. If we back up the authors versus the merchants, we risk wrecking big industrial cultural productions; if we give away culture for free to the users, we are going to gradually demotivate those who create it; if we let the merchants acquire full control over this market, we risk having all creative workers turned into mere hirelings.

It seems to me that if this part of the problem is recognized, the intellectual property debates will assume a new meaning. On the one side there is the public interest, on the other – the private one, on the one side – the right to culture, on the other – the right to ownership of authors and copyright holders. Different strategies for redefining the balance are possible. The most exotic one is the initiative of a young Swede to register the religious cult “Kopimism” according to which sharing content with brothers in faith is their sacred ritual. After the Pirate Party, which is already in the European Parliament, this new denomination will probably give trouble to both lawyers and copyright advocates.

The direction of the decision may be juridically oriented. Besides, why not change the direction of the expanding scope of the copyright – in terms of its content and span, its automatic enforcement by default. Perhaps the cultural products should enter the “public domain” faster and more unconditionally, whereas heirs, corporations and sellers should have far more limited rights over the works. Here is where the state steps in with its cultural policies of buying out certain copyrights and making them accessible to its citizens – an activity far more important than many other things it funds today. Unfortunately, this direction of development seems to me unlikely in the increasingly selfish world we live in.

It is easier to replace the notion of the work as a physical object, which can be locked up in a safe, with the term “cultural flow”. Buying the newly released album by a certain artist, or listening through a certain song is not what it comes down to – it comes down to joining the flow, being able to get in and out of it. This right makes me part of the contemporary world. If so, the purchase of the cultural product should simply be replaced with a subscription – just as we get access to a given TV station or get a membership card for the library, we subscribe to the flow and no longer worry about money. Technology has advanced so much that it can register exactly how many times a song has been downloaded, listened half-way through, or all the way through, and then calculate royalties for the owner.[20]

The fragmentation of the author function in itself, as I discussed above, can be understood much better in terms of the cultural flow. The creative act is broken down to diverging subjects, institutions, situations, acts of interpretation and reinterpretation, while the idea of the artist genius, infinitely profound, infinitely responsible, is receding further and further into the past. It is not that there are no great people and ideas in our times; the thing is that today the flow is produced not by them only, but by the increasingly intricate machine of the cultural industries. Apparently, the protection of the public interest entails radically new solutions, new balances.

The problem is that both law and cultural policies take place – and will probably continue to take place – at the level of the national state, whereas there are no states on the Internet. What then? Then all the players will keep on profiting as much as they can in the rapidly changing jungle: some by imposing formidable copyright fees, others by reselling somebody else’s products and generating traffic, and yet others – i.e. the citizen like you and me – well, by keeping pirating guiltily, until things get sorted out.

ID_4

Ill. 4. Cliff Burns, Cut-up, 2010.

  

Bibliography

Bakhtin, Mikhail 1920s / 1979. Автор и герой в эстетической деятельности [Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity].

Barthes, Roland 1984. De l\'oeuvre au texte.In: Le bruissement de la langue. Paris: Seuil, pp. 69-77.

Barthes, Roland 1977. Musica practica. In: Image-Music-Text. London: Fontana, pp. 149-154.

Barthes, Rоland 1968/1984. La mort de I\'auteur. In: Le bruissement de la langue. Paris: Seuil.

Blum, Susan D. 2008. The Internet, the Self, Authorship and Plagiarism. In: Anthropology News, March 2008, p, 8-9.

Buden, Boris 2004. Re-Reading Benjamin\'s \"Author as Producer\" in the Post-Communist East. In: Republicart.Net, 10.

Ditchev, Ivaylo 1991. Erotikata na avtorstvoto [The Erotics of Authorship]. Sofia: Critique and Humanism.

Foucault, Michel 1969/1994. Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur. In: Dits et écrits. Paris: Gallimard, t. I, p. 796.

Foucault, Michel 1997. The Order of Things. London: Routledge.

Mason, Matt 2008. The Pirate’s Dilemma. How Youth Culture is Reinventing Cpitalism. New York: Free Press.

Ricoeur, Paul 1976. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Forth Worth, TX: Texas University Press.

 
Ivaylo Ditchev is a Professor in Cultural Anthropology at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. His current research is on cities and practices of citizenship. His latest books are \"Citizens Beyond Places? New Mobilities, New Borders, New Forms of Belonging\" (Sofia: Prosveta 2009) and “Desire of Spaces, Spaces of Desire: Studies in Urban Anthropology” (Sofia: LIK 2005). Ivaylo Ditchev regularly contributes to the German edition of Lettre International, and to the daily Sega and the weekly Capital in Bulgaria.
 
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[1]  On the birth and decline of the author function in the European civilization, see Ditchev 1991.

[2]  This problem is examined in depth in the article by Todor Hristov in this issue.

[3]  If a book would automatically enter the public domain in ten years or so in the 19th century, today according to the international agreements in most countries it is protected by default, i.e. even without its author’s explicitly expressed will, for more than 70 years!

[4]  Satiated, fed up. A word that was trendy in the second half of the 19th century when the first oversaturation of the world with images took place.

[5]  A debate on France Culture, July 20th, 2009.

[6]  I am referring to a lecture delivered by one of the most popular bloggers known by his alias, “Komitata”, at Sofia University’s European Studies Department, April 7th, 2011.

[7]  A logical inference of Moore’s Law, formulated with reference to the hardware, is that the information circulating on the net doubles every two years.

[8]  The Croatian-born art historian Boris Buden writes: “If there is something like a left-wing initiative in the East today, it must have had its origins in the West“ (Buden 2004).

[9]  The cultural invariant is that we trust the one who sacrifices himself for his words.

[10]  I don’t refer to the distribution of the old cultural forms over the net, which continue to exist alongside the new forms.

[11]  YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_OBlgSz8sSM [12.03.2012].

[12]  YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/user/lifeinaday [12.03.2012].

[13]  Tsyaloto tweeter vojnstvo. Njakoi pouki ot Tweeter bombata sreshtu Ivo Siromahov [All the Tweeter’s Army. Some lessons from the Tweeter bomb against Ivo Siromahov], Capital, 26.11.2010.

[14]  #siromahovfacts issue 1, 24.11.2010 (http://issuu.com/dimikostadinov/docs/siromahovfacts-the-full-book)

[15]  The users launched a hashtag #siromahovfacts (for some reason not active on 15.04.2011) for collecting derisive folklore, complied in the book. For instance, didodoro: “They don’t let Siromahov in European museums for security reasons”; Elenko: “Siromahov works with the Health Fund”; trikorni: “As hard as they try, the Gypsies can’t make Siromahov their bride and steal him. What a pity.”

[16]  Let me also mention Benjamin’s collector who turns the pursuit, acquisition, and possession into a sort of creative act. The digital world generalizes this practice: a number of platforms (delicious, dig, reddit) offer a tool to bookmark the interesting sites that you have visited, i.e. in a sense, to collect them, to take possession of them.

[17]  Poland was at the frontline of the European battle against ACTA.

[18]  Actually, the net is built by private companies and the awareness of this fact portends to some serious clashes in the future.

[19]  “Il s\'agit de faire ce que la IIIe Républi­que avait réalisé, dans sa volonté républicaine, pour l\'enseignement; il s\'agit de faire en sorte que chaque enfant de France puisse avoir droit aux tableaux, au théâtre, au cinéma, etc., comme il a droit à l\'alphabet.” Présentation du budget de la culture à l\'Assemblée nationale : 27 octobre 1966, http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/histoire/malraux_oct66.asp.

[20]  This idea, formulated as a “universal license”, was actively discussed in France between 2001 and 2006 when the parliament dismissed it. Many observers believe that it still has a future.
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