NEASIST Copyright Program: Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Presentation

Siva Vaidhyanathan
New York University
Freedom vs. Control: Rights Management in the Digital Age
Wednesday, December 15, 2004

I don’t mean to offend anyone when I write this. Vaidhyanathan is a well-built fellow with a shaved head wearing a black suit. He looks like the kind of person Law & Order picks to play thugs and bodyguards. I’m thinking, “I’m glad this guy is on our side of the copyright law issues.”

People don’t pay attention to copyright law like they pay attention to other things. For example, there was a huge copyright conference in November. Did it get any media attention? (Someone says she read a newspaper article about it.)

“Raise your hand if you think the copyright system in the United States is great and needs no reworking,” he commands. No one raises a hand. Vaidhyanathan says no matter where you ask the question, people do not raise their hands. “How do we get a system so important, so central to what we think of ourselves, so central to our education, so central to our economy, and yet, we’re not happy with it?” There isn’t much equilibrium.

[I was just starting to wonder why it is that most of the people who have taught me about copyright law haven’t had a neutral viewpoint. It seems like there’s far more conversation about how copyright law is bad, where it falls short. It’s rare that I’ve heard someone say anything positive about the law or talk about how it works or benefits someone.]

US copyrights are some of the most valuable exports.

There’s a lot of anxiety over how connectivity threatens people’s intellectual property rights. Enforcement is difficult. Norms are breaking down. Safeguards are threatened. Copyright holders have a lot of influence over lawmakers.

“Kids today just don’t respect copyright like we used to,” he mimics old grumpy men.

“There is almost nothing I can’t get online,” Vaidhyanathan explains about how easy it is to get materials violating copyright law on the Internet.

Parties are trying to get copyright law on their terms, but, of course, everyone fears everyone else’s terms. Until there is agreement, there can be no equilibrium.

The principals of US copyright law are being used in other places. A “one size fits all” policy isn’t the best solution. Cultural differences might warrant a different law. The Maori people don’t want their culture to become commercialized. They’re trying to challenge Lego for using their culture in a video game. When Lego realized it was a problem for the Maori, they tried to reach an agreement with them. According to the Maori, Lego broke all of their promises.

Group rights are not always obvious. If a group has the right to license or restrict the use of its group, people need to know who is or who isn’t a member of the group. Group rights can threaten culture. Culture is all about sharing things.

If a symbol is only associated with one culture, it can radically change what that symbol means. Vaidhyanathan used the swastika as an example. A positive symbol in Hinduism, it’s usurpation by the Nazis in the 20th Century has changed the symbol’s meaning and significance greatly in certain cultures. If certain groups retain rights to the swastika, it could permanently change the meaning of the symbol and influence how others use it.

What happens to national cultural policy in this? Group rights might alienate certain cultures or allow the whitewashing of certain cultures and cultural history. Cultures can get frozen by tourism, too.

It is difficult to forge norms.

“Culture is Gumbo”

He played a video of the song Encore from the Grey Album, a video of a Beatles concert using music from The Grey Album and some new film footage.

Q: something about CD piracy
A: Being able to buy a lot of products in other countries may not be possible. No one’s going to buy a DVD if they really need the money for food or clothes. Piracy is going to continue. But there must be better ways to deal with those poor markets. Perhaps using different pricing structures is an option.

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