05 April 2004

Even More Still More or Lessig

One of the major conceptual problems that I have with the "copyfreedom" position is the equation it makes between the right/need to make archival copies of deteriorating material (aside: note how little attention is paid to the difficulties of making archival copies of deteriorating material that is not in copyright, but is in "special collections"?) and the right/need to distribute those copies to others. These are not congruent rights. In fact, they are clearly outside the scope of the IP Clause. The IP Clause contemplates advancement of the useful arts and sciences by granting a limited monopoly to creators. The underlying economic theory is that the creators themselves will be encouraged to create more if they are assured that others cannot simply copy their works without recompense. The "archives" argument does not limit itself to explicitly denying the economic basis for the Constitutional imperatives by arguing that "no, wider spread of copies is what encourages more creation." (Note that virtually none of the "archives" proponents are willing to put forth a coherent Constitutional amendment as a proposal to eliminate the confusion.) Implicitly, the archives approach says that market forces outside of the conception of the creator can trump the creator's rights: that distribution of the "preserved" materials is something that must be left to those other than the creator. Cf. Ayre & Muir, "The Right to Preserve."

This should sound a great deal like two popular, but thoroughly discredited (by those paying attention, anyway), arguments against the IP system. IP isn't perfect; it sure beats the alternative of patronage, though. One of these arguments is one that very few people accept: that "everything worth inventing has already been invented." This argument has validity if, and only if, one redefines "invented" in the middle of the argument, from the very broad to the very narrow. Fortunately, not many people accept this argument anymore. I suspect that they are convinced of its invalidity by the hulking research-and-development institutions, and massive research universities, that have sprung up across the Western world like psychedelic mushrooms. However, that's primarily related to the patent system. The corollary for copyright issues is the misguided, indefensible, moronic claim that "there are only six [or sixteen, or thirty-six, to name the other two most-common allegations] plots." Again, this argument depends upon a mid-argument redefinition: just what is a plot? I, for one, do not believe that the sixth-grade book report is an adequate description of the creative impulse or of the creative process. However, the level of detail demanded of these "identical" or "similar" "plots" is less than that of those book reports.

If one actually reads the garbage put forth by the proponents, particularly in light of even a cursory familiarity with literary theory—such as one gets in a junior-year "critical perspectives" course—one realizes that it rests entirely on misusing the term "plot." What these self-interested (because for most of them, the "theory" is only an excuse to sell more "secret formula of writing success" books to suckers inexperienced authors) reprobates really mean is that there are only a few different archetypes underlying the basic structures of narrative works. However, an "archetype" is not a "plot"; it is a much greater/higher abstraction from the underlying work than is the plot. One of my favorite examples is the idiocy ascribed to the so-called "hero's journey" structure. For the moment, we'll ignore the shoddy scholarship behind Campbell's platitudes as irrelevant to this discussion…

Consider these two examples:

  • The hero is confronted with a challenge, rejects it, but then is forced (or allowed) to accept it. He travels on the road of trials, gathering powers and allies, and confronts evil only to be defeated. This leads to a dark night of the soul, after which the hero makes a leap of faith that allows him to confront evil again and be victorious. Finally, the student becomes the teacher.
  • Frodo Baggins, an otherwise inoffensive Hobbit, comes into possession of the One Ring. On the advice of the wizard Gandalf, who refuses the Ring when it is offered to him, Frodo agrees to bear the ring to the Crack of Doom and destroy it to prevent Sauron from returning to power. Frodo gathers nine companions—not entirely through his own devices—and sets out across wilderness toward the Crack of Doom, all the while impeded by Sauron's avatars. Gandalf is killed in a confrontation with another, independent Evil. One of Frodo's companions attempts to seize the Ring, but is killed himself. Frodo and Sam separate from the others and trudge toward the Crack of Doom alone. Gollum, a previous (corrupted) bearer of the Ring, finds them, and unwillingly guides them toward the Crack of Doom. Meanwhile, the remainder of Frodo's companions rally the West against Sauron and his allies, including a traitorous former advisor/mentor to Gandalf (who himself has been resurrected with greater power than before). They fight several battles, winning each time. Finally, in an attempt to distract Sauron from what they hope and believe Frodo is doing, they attack Sauron at horrible odds. At the climax of the battle, Frodo reaches the Crack of Doom. He is unable to complete his Quest by himself, but Gollum, in his attempts to regain the Ring, accidentally does so. Sauron's power is destroyed, and not everyone lives happily ever after.

One of these is an archetype. One is a plot. The "limited plots" argument is rather like claiming that one can determine the appearance of an animal by knowing whether it has a cartilaginous or bony skeleton (or even a skeleton at all—it might be a worm). However, that argument is actually referring to "archetypes," as in the first example above. "Plot" is something much more complex; even the short summary in the second example leaves out a lot of critical issues and details. Calling the former "plot" doesn't make it "plot."

This really does matter to the whole copyfreedom debate, and more particularly to the archives variation thereon. How should be fairly apparent; but I'll pontificate further another time, as I really do need to do some gainful work today.