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Copy That

Moses, the hero of this week’s parasha, knew about the importance of the public domain, in which shared stories shape common consciousness. But today we’re much more interested in private profit.

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(Illustration: Tablet Magazine; image: Flickr/Yeshiva University Museum)

Here’s the story told in this week’s parasha: After the Lord afflicts Egypt with several more plagues, the Pharaoh is finally ready to release the Israelites, who, in turn, leave in such haste they haven’t time to wait for their bread to leaven.

It’s a familiar story, of course—most of us spend one or two nights a year munching on matzoh, reclining, and retelling this tale to our families and friends—and it’s familiar by design. “Remember this day,” Moses tells his flock, “when you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, for with a mighty hand, the Lord took you out of here.” It’s more than a passing suggestion: We are all commanded to speak of the Exodus each year, to introduce it to the next generation, to keep the collective memory vividly alive.

Taken literally, this is a strange demand. Shouldn’t memory, like the moon affecting the tide, take its natural toll on the heart and the mind alike? Shouldn’t we be allowed to remember what we want to remember and forget what we want to forget? This, surely, is true of individuals; but once a collection of selves congregates and contemplates peoplehood, the rules change. A people needs a story, upon which nations are founded and according to which history is understood. In his renowned book Imagined Communities, Cornell professor Benedict Anderson argued that America invented the notion of nationalism, creating a shared narrative powerful enough to bind together men and women who hailed from different parts of the world, lived in different parts of the country, and believed in different religious and political ideals.

In this week’s parasha, we see the same principle at work. As they prepare to flee Egypt, the Israelites are still a loose collection of clans, sharing little but common ancestry and the brunt of Egypt’s burden. But in the story of the exodus, and in the commandment to retell it in perpetuity, they have found the platform for peoplehood. Sharing a story is often much more meaningful than sharing DNA.

This idea, incidentally, is also the basis for our copyright laws. And it is everywhere under attack. While our current copyright laws, for example, allow copyright-holders to seek redress from individuals guilty of specific copyright infringement, a new bill that is likely to pass into law soon would give the government the right to shut down an entire website if the website was “dedicated to infringing activities.” The law, called the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeit Act of 2010, does not specify precisely what such dedication might mean, giving corporations a powerful tool to use not only against legitimate offenders but also against competing corporate entities. The recent case of Viacom v. YouTube, for example, would most likely have ended very differently had the media conglomerate had legal grounds to argue that the web video giant, despite all efforts to remove unlicensed content, still harbored many infringing materials and should therefore be shut down.

This is a perilous state of affairs, one that stands in direct contradiction to the original intent behind copyright law. Passed in 1710, the world’s first piece of copyright legislation, known as the Statute of Anne after the queen to which it was presented, makes this point explicitly. The law’s full title was “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned.” It’s a mouthful, but it gets the point across: Rather than grant authors or publishers perpetual ownership of their creations, as had been the case for decades, the law required that all works be made available to the public after a certain period of time, for the benefit of the common good. It is no coincidence that the statute came only a few short decades after John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government; if, as Locke famously argued, the only legitimate governments are those who govern by consent of the people, then the people must be educated. For that to happen, they need access to shared resources, an interest that trumps even that of private property. So was born the public domain.

Unfortunately, in the hands of lobbyists and legislators, this noble idea dies a little each year. When Charles Pinckney of South Carolina and James Madison of Virginia drafted the nation’s first copyright law in 1790, they were content with giving authors the rights to their work for 28 years; by 1998, the term limit has climbed as high as life of the author plus an additional 70 years. This grants creators and publishers excessive protection, leaving the rest of us with a staid and struggling public domain.

As we read this week’s parasha, then, let us be reminded once more of the importance of shared stories, and let us zealously guard those shared spaces that corporations, politicians, and other interested parties are forever trying to make private and profitable. Without such common resources, without a public domain, what we have is not a culture but a marketplace. Emma Goldman, whose work entered the public domain this week, said it best. “Heaven,” she quipped, “must be an awfully dull place if the poor in spirit live there.” Let us struggle to make sure that is never the case.

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I don’t agree: “…the term limit has climbed as high as life of the author plus an additional 70 years. This grants creators and publishers excessive protection, leaving the rest of us with a staid and struggling public domain.”

In the last year and a couple of months, I’ve had cause to protect my interests and that of others who I hope will outlive me, after I was confronted by a bold and vicious insinuation in a public forum by someone clearly communicating that they intended to take my writing and adjust it out of context in a salacious farce. They presumed that other parties had no copyright in the materials written in the 1960s.

Thankfully that is not the case. Several people nastily attacked me and continued to do so. Their attitude was a desire to humiliate me and they kept it up for quite some time but,inadvertently they also provided me the opportunity to contact the authorities who could put them under surveillance for attempting to break the law’s requirements for them to even access documents in the keeping of the State of California.

Because of their ignorance of the law, there has been a continual petulant accessing of my subscriptions with the result that I can not access my on-line subscriptions myself. It is time consuming for me to clarify these matters; and you may well ask why do they do these things to prove they can get something for nothing. I think it is today called, “Cyber bullying”, and it is done because they have succeeded in doing it before. Only then it was a matter of “stalking a minor on-line” as determined by a leading newspaper on-line from Manhattan which denied them further access; now they are simply inconveniencing a senior citizen who has to do most of her reading on-line.

Rpbin Margolis says:

Dear Liel:

An interesting take on the parsha!

I think we may have three issues confused here — copyrights pertaining to individual authors and their descendants and copyrights held by major corporations who have authors creating for them under “work for hire” contracts under which the authors give up all rights to the corporation.

We also have internet access issues, as in corporations attempting to carve up areas of the internet and charge internet users for accessing the sites.

With regard to individual authors, the term of “author’s life plus 70 years” does seem awfully long compared to the original 28 year term. But bear in mind that the original lifespan in the 18th and 19th centuries was much shorter than it is now — the average age of death in the U.S. in 1900 was age 52. The “life plus 70″ was allegedly intended to allow authors to leave profits from their books to their children and grandchildren or other heirs.

The bad part about the “life plus 70 years” is that many authors have signed agreements with publishers in which their publishers lock up publication rights for the author’s life and 70 years — the author and heirs officially has copyright, but it is the publisher who controls the book — virtually, forever. That is not good.

However, the self-publishing sector is taking off, and as publishing companies have to compete, I would guess that these contracts might be modified.

With regard to the issues of corporate control of created material and possible charges to access websites — discussing that would exceed Tablet’s space limits. You may want to consult an intellectual property lawyer for an explanation of those issues.

Of course, if G#d’s people take a little longer in the preparation of a virus – it can be just as effective as a plague, still allows plenty of time for the bread to rise, and is in the public domain available at any time.

I’ve said that least 3262091 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

I’ve looked at many sites and not come across like a internet site as yours that tells everybody everything they require to know.

Perfectly composed content, appreciate it for entropy.

Louise says:

Congratulations :) Your site is awesome.

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Copy That

Moses, the hero of this week’s parasha, knew about the importance of the public domain, in which shared stories shape common consciousness. But today we’re much more interested in private profit.

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