06 November 2004

Weekend Update

But it's not live. It's not from New York. And it's only Saturday morning.

Sometimes parties can reach sensible compromises on trademarks. Sometimes they have no idea of what they're doing when they do.

In honor of their working method they called themselves the Postal Service. Their album, "Give Up," was released by the Seattle-based Sub Pop Records in early 2003 and became an indie-rock hit, eventually selling almost 400,000 copies, the label's second biggest seller ever, after Nirvana's "Bleach." Then they heard from the real Postal Service, in the form of a cease-and-desist letter. "It was really polite," said Tony Kiewel, an artist and repertory representative at Sub Pop who works with the band. "It said that the Postal Service is a registered trademark of the United States Postal Service, and that though they were very, very flattered that we were using the name, they need to enforce their copyright [sic]."

Ben Sisario, "Postal Service Tale: Indie Rock, Snail Mail and Trademark Law," New York Times (06 Nov 2004) (fake paragraphing removed for clarity). Aside from revealing the typical ignorance of the scope of copyright—that last word in the quotation should be "trademark," as titles are explicitly not governed by copyright—the result the parties reached was eminently sensible and should be a big hint to the Beatles and that toy computer company in Cupertino. Instead of massive recriminations, attempts to enforce C&D letters, or outrageous license fees extracted for an irrelevant use, the parties agreed that (gasp! shock! horror!) their respective uses actually enhanced each others' brands and that they should cooperate in marketing. Sorry, but I don't think anybody looking for the collected works of John Lennon is going to go looking for them on a Unix box with a fancy front end.

On a more discouraging note, the Texas textbook-approval mechanism has claimed yet another victim for its fundamentalist majority. This time, it's seemingly subtle revisions to textbooks on health, which now define marriage (something that, for some reason, seems out of place to me as an issue in a health textbook) as being solely between men and women. Umm, guys, have you learned nothing whatsoever from the spread of STDs? Pretending that behavior of which you don't approve can be prevented by ignoring it—particularly when that behavior is not properly part of the subject matter at issue absent some truly astounding logical leaps—doesn't work.

Last for the moment, but far from least, is a fascinating essay on reading and democracy from Philip Pullman.

[T]he Soviet Union was one of the most thoroughgoing theocracies the world has ever seen, and it was atheist to its marrow. In this respect, the most dogmatic materialist is functionally equivalent to the most fanatical believer, Stalin's Russia exactly the same as Khomeini's Iran. It isn't belief in God that causes the problem. The root of the matter is quite different. It is that theocracies don't know how to read, and democracies do.

In other words, as powerful as the labels we may apply can be in restricting (or, in rare instances, enhancing) understanding, substance rules over form. This isn't the only juicy quotable passage in Pullman's essay, by any means.

The democracy of reading exists in the to-and-fro between reader and text, when each is free to engage honestly with the other. The democracy of politics needs the same freedom and honesty in the public realm: freedom from lies and distortions about other candidates, honesty about one's own actions and programmes and sources of information. It's difficult. It's strenuous. The sort of effort it takes was never very common, but it seems to be rarer now than it was. It is quite easy for democracies to forget how to read.

Pullman's understatement here is part of a subtle reading strategy. Although the article concentrates on methods of reading, it also bears considerable relationship to Twain's aphorism that "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them." (I think I have that right, but it's from memory.)