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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Information wants to be free: 19th Century edition

Apparently there's been some blogosphere dust-up lately about Chris Anderson's Free: The Future of a Radical Price, because, on the one hand, it's really easy to download an entire band's 30 year discography in a few minutes without having to put on pants these days, while, on the other hand, Wired still expects you to pay for subscriptions. Or something like that. This is a freshman blog, and the older bloggers keep pushing me into lockers or sending me to look for a pool on the roof when I try to join the discussion.

But, you know what, I'm reading Perry Miller's The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville and the New York Literary Scene right now. First of all, so far, it's much more interesting than the title might suggest. The New York literary scene in the 1830s and 1840s was filled with a lot of people arguing over what American literature would look like. And their arguments, as most arguments do, quickly became confused with political debates and, more importantly, a lot of personal insults.

So far, the whole thing strikes me as very similar to the message board flame wars that you encounter on nerd sites or those weird blog community rivalries (like, remember gawker vs. n+1? jeez, that makes me feel old). But instead of pretentious twenty-something bloggers or Green Lantern fans, these were august men of letters who were trying to help out Hawthorne, Poe and Melville. Or sink them.

Then maybe David Denby is wrong, these kind of poisonous fights for status in tiny communities are nothing new. The only difference is that now, it's easier for everyone to watch two geeks try to slap each other and roll their eyes.

But before I get totally distracted by my own snark, what is most interesting in terms of our time, is the difficulty of copyright in those days. While the fact that Poe and Melville and Hawthorne were perpetually fighting to keep the wolves from their door is nothing new, the arguments over copyright/literature piracy are also surprisingly current.

Once again, you have one side claiming that copyright is the only thing that would help encourage artists to pursue their craft without facing starvation. On the other side, people are arguing that if the best will still be able to support themselves if they are good, and copyright only encourages mediocrities in rent-seeking.

That's all very simplistic though. Because the copyright people also (generally) wanted literary protectionism that would encourage American writers (and implicitly keeping out European works). And yes, that was partly argued as a fear of European decadence infecting American readers.

While the copyfight people were, with the benefit of history, basically saying, "yeah, Poe and Melville and Hawthorne? Nobodies. Charles Lamb, now he's where it's at." Oh, and that creating art was something that only already rich people should indulge in.

So both historical sides are very problematic. And the problematic angles of both sides seem to be lurking underneath the current arguments too.

Up next: An argument that Hollywood is a best case scenario for commercial art. Also, speculation that Roger Corman and his ilk are the future of professional film-making (for better or worse).

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