Monday, 18 May 2015

The felony of reading

To plagiarize, we are told, is to a commit a crime. It is, perhaps, to be some kind of Ted Bundy or the Unabomber, carefully planning a hit, ready to work out a life of fame at the expense of their unsuspecting victims.

Source: Condé Nast
Corry Doctorow has things to say about copyright and plagiarism from the point of view of someone who’s seen things made and done at the legislative level. And what he’s seen is, by all appearance, the criminalization of users (readers, watchers, listeners etc.) by the corporate universe.
“At root, DRM [Digital Rights Management] are technologies that treat the owner of a computer of other device as an attacker, someone against whom the system must be armored. Like the electrical meter on the side of your house, a DRM is a technology that you possess, but you are never supposed to be able to manipulate or modify.”
A lot can be said about the new forms of control put in place to supposedly protect us, the users, from being prosecuted. (Lucky us! To be so efficiently shielded against ourselves!) I don’t want to go into the details of how a DRM functions, how it purports to make bits of information uncopyable, how it acts as the antibody of a system that’s weak in the face of the scandalous multitude, us.
What I want to retain from the above is this: like in any criminal law, the purpose of copyright laws is to make the essential assumption that every user (every citizen) is a potential criminal. Like all laws, the laws of copyright run on suspicion. Yes, you need to be always on guard, always prepared to spot the intruder, always ready to cry: Catch the thief! Catch the thief!

Psychopathic executives, paranoid legislators

It is precisely this suspicion that the enforcers strive to quieten. It makes sense, doesn’t it, to board up the windows when you know that someone is coming for you. It makes sense to disrupt the crime that’s about to be committed. But we might have a problem with this takenforgrantedness. We might have a problem with it, because reacting against something that’s about to be committed means reacting against something that hasn’t been done: something that, in essence, doesn’t exist as such; a virtuality, a fiction.
In this, I see obvious signs of paranoia: the projection of a constant, largely imagined, fear, founded on an imagined threat, on the basis of a never-attainable solution.
In a radio program I was listening to the other day, the hosts were citing a fairly recent research project claiming that more and more individuals showing psychopathic traits are being welcomed as managers or CEOs of corporate structures. The conclusion was easy to imagine. Of course, they said, of course. What would you expect when the entire environment designed to uphold accomplishment is based on the easy principle of success without scruples?
The same goes, I think, with the paranoid mentality of legislators: since the only way to pass laws is by manufacturing the promise of success against virtual crimes, of course all we are going to end up with is an environment of suspicion. Everybody’s going to look over their shoulders: have I been trespassed against? Has my property been under threat?
Psychopathic executives, paranoid legislators: are we all well up in the attic? Can we function properly? Can we be said to embrace normality at all?
In this normality, the user is a villain. Yes, the user, who materializes the product’s function. The citizen, through whom the legal system is brought to light. It is the user that brings about the threat, the possibility of a crime to be committed.

Prosecute your readers!

To keep within my area of interest, I’d have to say that the reader of a book is, virtually and therefore undoubtedly, a likely criminal. Reading the work of another is, in essence, a form of home invasion. No matter how we twist the facts and force the meanings, the reader performs their actions without the author knowing who they are; without the author even knowing that they are defacing the text (mocking the original, bringing about a meaning possibly never intended). Since this is how things work, every author would be entitled to file a complaint against every single one of their readers for plagiarism and slander. For plagiarism because, at the end of the day, the reader is using precisely the words created by the writer, without changing a bit. For slander because the reader makes a false allegation against the writer: the allegation of incorrectness.
In theory, every writer should be entitled to call for prosecution. But then there’s this little reality of their complete dependence on the criminal. Because without the user, without the perpetrator, who would be there to acknowledge the work?

Source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
This paranoid return upon a threat that’s never fully materialized (no single prosecution will ever take away the suspicion) makes, therefore, sense only in the abstract. It is a speculation we’re talking about here: an apparatus of repression speculating in order to justify the presence of its laws. Write as you like, do as you please; at the end of the day you, the author, are the one losing: either at the hand of the reader (who will never be stopped from reading, i.e. trespassing), or at the hand of the legislator (who will take away your individuality to place it under an abstract complexity called copyright). It’s “the electric reader at the side of your house” that matters: a text that we own but cannot alter. Hence the important idea that even self-plagiarism is a crime.