[-empyre-] Week Three - Open Access

Gary Hall gary at garyhall.info
Wed Jun 16 23:16:46 EST 2010


Hi all,

Thanks for inviting me to be one of the guest contributors this week. 
I'm excited to be here. I’ve been following the conversation since the 
start of the month, and it's really helped me with my own thinking 
around these areas.

I’m a co-founder of Open Humanities Press (along with Paul, David and 
Sigi), co-editor of the latter’s Liquid Books series, and I’m also 
co-founder of the open access journal Culture Machine. But before we 
really get into open access – or perhaps as a way of getting into it – 
I’d like to take Michael at his word and pick up on one or two of the 
threads from previous weeks, if that's OK. I was particularly interested 
in the discussion of piracy and alienated labour, and wanted to explore 
still another way of thinking about the issue. (How different it is from 
Sean Dockray’s Deleuze-inspired reading I’m not sure: but that’s a 
conversation we can have, I guess.)

The rethinking of the general impulse toward the ‘free’ reminded me of a 
point Adrian Johns makes: that in spite of its romantic, 
counter-cultural image, much of our current philosophy regarding piracy 
is actually a moral philosophy concerned with ‘convictions about 
freedom, rights, duties, obligations, and the like’. It’s a philosophy 
that has its historical roots very much in the ideology of 
libertarianism. This moralism is one of the reasons I continue to be 
wary of the Creative Commons mode of copyright – and I say this even 
though I very much support what my OHP colleague Paul Ashton says about 
the importance of books and other texts being made available for free in 
a way that ensures commercial interests have no right to profit from 
them. I can see that CC licenses are a means of achieving this. And of 
course we do use CC licenses for Open Humanities Press for these kind of 
reasons.

Earlier in the month I noticed Simon Worthington mentioning that ‘Mute 
magazine publishes... free 2 share, with no copyright, open or closed.’ 
It’d be really interesting and helpful if Simon or Pauline could say a 
little more about the thinking behind that.

Anyway, back to piracy. Interestingly, when the word pirate first begin 
to appear in the texts of the ancient Greeks – and I’m drawing on Daniel 
Heller-Roazen’s The Enemy of All for this - it was ‘closely related to 
the noun peira, “trial” or “attempt”, and so to the verb peiraō: the 
“pirate” would then be the one who “tests”, “puts to proof”, “contends 
with”, and “makes an attempt”. This is where the modern expression 
pirate has its etymological origins, then: long before circa 1710, when 
Johns has it first routinely being used to refer to intellectual 
misappropriation.

On this basis, I’d want to put forward the idea that a responsible 
ethical – as opposed to moralistic – approach to ‘piracy’ wouldn’t 
actually presume to know what it is in advance. What’s interesting about 
certain instances of digital culture from such an ‘ethical’ perspective 
– and in light of the earlier discussion it might be interesting to 
consider the AAAARG.org experiment as a possible case in point – is that 
we can’t tell at the time of their initial appearance if they are 
legitimate or not. This is because the new conditions that are made 
possible by digital culture – such as the ability to digitize and make 
freely available whole libraries worth of books – at times require the 
creation of equally new intellectual property laws and copyright 
policies. (The Google Book settlement is an example.) So we can never be 
sure whether these so-called pirates, in the ‘attempts’ they’re making 
to ‘contend with’ the new conditions and possibilities created by 
digital culture, to ‘trial’ them, put them to the ‘proof’, are not in 
fact involved in the creation of the very new laws, policies, clauses, 
settlements, licensing agreements and acts of Congress and Parliament by 
which they could be judged. As in the case of William Fox, the filmmaker 
who founded 20th Century Fox, partly by pirating the creative property 
of Thomas Edison (in a nice irony, given his attitude to free culture 
and internet piracy, 20th C. Fox is now owned by Rupert Murdoch), we can 
never tell the founder of a new law or institution in advance: we can 
only really judge whether the activities of such supposed pirates are 
legal or not, legitimate or not, justified or not, from some point in an 
indefinite future.

Another way to think about this is in relation to the legislator in 
Rousseau. As Geoffrey Bennington demonstrated some time ago now, we can 
never know for sure whether the legislator – the founder of a new law or 
institution such as a university – is legitimate or a charlatan. This is 
because of the aporia that lies at the heart of authority, whereby the 
legislator already has to posses the authority the founding of the new 
institution is supposed to provide him or her with in order to be able 
to found it. For me, certain so-called internet ‘pirates’ are in a 
similar situation to Rousseau’s legislator: they, too, may be involved 
in performatively inventing, trialling and testing the very new laws and 
institutions by which their activities could be judged.

It follows that we can’t tell what’s going to happen with digital 
‘pirate’ culture. It may lead to the development of new forms of 
education, culture and economy: where the protection of Intellectual 
Property is no longer possible in the way in which we currently 
understand it; where the institutions of the culture industry – 
newspapers, book publishers and so forth – are radically reconfigured; 
where people conventionally disseminate academic research and 
publications via p2p networks; where even ideas regarding the humanist, 
proprietorial author are dramatically transformed. And if so, pirate 
culture will have had as profound an effect ‘as the establishment of 
copyright... in the eighteenth century, and the development of modern 
patent systems in the nineteenth’, to borrow Johns’ words one last time. 
But then again pirate culture may not lead to anything like this. As 
with the impact of the French Revolution, it’s still too early to tell.

Nevertheless, one of the things I’m interested in with nearly all the 
projects I’m involved with is experimenting with the development of a 
different kind of economy: an economy based more on openness, 
hospitality and responsibility, and less on individualism, possession, 
acquisition, competition, celebrity, and ideas of knowledge as something 
to be owned, commodified, communicated, disseminated and exchanged as 
the property of individuals.

Of course I’m aware that in-work academic labourers are paid by their 
institutions and many have a lot to benefit from making their research 
and publications available on a free and open basis. And, yes, ‘for 
other kinds of writers, the idea of free culture may simply result in 
more alienated labour’, as Emmett Stinson quite rightly points out. 
However, at the same time, and as others have suggested, the vast 
majority of (non-academic, non-affiliated) authors, artists and 
musicians actually benefit very little from the current copyright 
economy, too. A few top stars may earn a lot, but most people don’t. An 
Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society Study from 2007 suggested that 
the ‘typical earnings of a British professional writer aged 25-34 are 
only £5,000 per annum’. In his recent book, Nice Work If You Can Get It, 
Andrew Ross even goes so far as to argue that 'in the court of public 
opinion, corporate IP warriors can always win points by broadcasting the 
claim that they are defending the labor rights of vulnerable artists. 
Yet the historical record and the experience of working artists today 
confirm that the struggling proprietary author has always been more of a 
convenient fiction for publishers to exploit than a consistent 
beneficiary of copyright rewards. Culture-industry executives are able 
to masquerade as the last line of protection for artists, when in fact 
they are systematically stripping them of their copyrights.' If so, then 
it might not be just academic labourers who have things to gain from 
experimenting with different kinds of economies and ‘alternate 
modernities’.

This is not to say the same alternate economy which emerges in one 
sphere can simply be ‘exported’ to other areas of society and culture. 
(Certainly, it's hard to see open access as it currently exists working 
for the retail fashion industry, for example, and I don't think anyone 
is saying it can.) But this state of affairs is not peculiar to 
academia: it applies to the situation of many of those who are ‘beyond 
the academy’, too.

It’s interesting, for example, that for Ross, the debate around free 
culture has been dominated by a ‘thwarted class fraction of high-skilled 
and self-directed individuals in the creative and knowledge sectors 
whose entrepreneurial prospects are increasingly blocked by corporate 
monopolies’. He sees proponents of liberal views of IP, such as those 
behind Creative Commons, as having been able to form a ‘coalition of 
experts with the legal access and resources’– Lawrence Lessig, James 
Boyle, Electronic Frontier Foundation all come to mind - to mount a 
powerful campaign that often overshadows other more interesting and 
radical approaches. As a result, the debate over ‘free’ risks being, in 
his words, ‘simply an elite copyfight between capital-owner monopolists 
and the labor aristocracy of the digitariat (a dominated fraction of the 
dominant class, as Pierre Bourdieu once described intellectuals) 
struggling to preserve and extend their high-skill interests’.

So, yes, part of the medium to longer term task is going to be to see if 
we can translate the kind of experiments many of us have been involved 
with in our different ways into areas of society other than the 
academy... and other than those associated with the labor aristocracy of 
the digitariat as well. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also be doing 
what we can where we are now. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o once said in a talk 
he gave as part of OHP, ‘It is not enough, but it is a beginning’.

Cheers

Gary

-- 
Gary Hall
Professor of Media and Performing Arts
School of Art and Design, Coventry University
Co-editor of Culture Machine 
http://www.culturemachine.net
Co-founder of the Open Humanities Press
http://www.openhumanitiespress.org
My website http://www.garyhall.info

Latest: 'Deleuze's "Postscript on the Societies of Control"', Culture Machine 11, 2010 
http://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/view/384/407 












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