Wednesday, December 03, 2008

12.2.02 Here Comes Tomorrow



This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of The Artful Mind

With the seismically historic election of Barack Obama, we’re all exhaling and awaiting a return to sanity from our federal government. After being subjected to eight years of arrogant, ignorant and destructive neo-conservative policies, it’s clear that there will be huge top-down corrections in how we approach international relations, human rights, science and the truth.

Gee, that sounds good, doesn’t it? And how will the new administration approach policies relevant to artists and creativity?

Good question.

Generally, one would hope that Obama’s demonstrated thoughtful approach to everything will redound to the arts and the creative economy. He will place qualified people at the National Endowment for the Arts, for example, unlike his predecessor, who just gave the absurdly jingoist country singer Lee Greenwood (“God Bless the Red, White, and Blue”) a seat on the board that determines what artists and art institutions get from the fairly meager funds the federal government doles out every year. I’m surprised Larry the Cable Guy isn’t the Poet Lauriat.

By the same token, Obama can be expected to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will take more expansive views of civil rights, especially as regards things like expression and other individual rights. The same goes for appointments to the FCC, which increasingly has become a facilitator for Big Media corporate interests and the Christianista right.

A week before the election I was on a panel discussing the presidential candidates’ specific positions on tech and intellectual property issues. There wasn’t a whole lot of information out there to talk about. Position papers on the candidates’ websites were pretty thin, and filled more with meaningless platitudes than concrete proposals. I had to rely on anecdotal information and the educated guesses of media / blogosphere “experts”, who didn’t know much more than me, that is to say, almost nothing. IP stuff has never been on any presidential top-ten list, and especially not this year, what with a couple ground wars, various constitutional crises, and the world economy in collapse. And these issues can’t be reduced to slogans and tag-lines, so the pinhead mainstream media isn’t interested.

Since most of the interesting intellectual property issues today have to do with digital media and the internet, one indicia of where we’re headed is Obama’s relationship with the internet. And that’s encouraging. His campaign and especially his astonishing fundraising effort was all about the web. At the peak of the campaign I was getting several messages a day, and they were generally welcome and informative, and occasionally goaded me into logging in and throwing O’s campaign a few more dollars.

Not surprisingly, Obama’s a crackberry addict, an obsessive texter. He’s also a dad with young kids who presumably are tech-aware, and so he’s confronted with all the issues all parents face with kids and the web. These are all good things. He’s our first President who is of the present and conversant in matters regarding the internet. Consider the alternative-—John McCain reportedly didn’t use email and told a reporter that his wife Cindy helped him with “a Google” once or twice. Yikes...

Obama’s few policy statements about this stuff are even more encouraging. He’s on record as being in favor of net neutrality, that is, regulations that insure that the internet stays non-discriminatory and that internet access and operability are the same for everyone. Major internet providers are apparently itching to provide multi-tiered service, where premium customers get better and faster service and the rest of us get what’s left. The argument against tiered service (and for net neutrality) is that it would give substantial commercial advantage to the big, the entrenched, and the wealthy, and discourage access and innovation by the little guys who’ve driven innovation on the web since day one. The Facebooks and eBays of the world were started with good ideas, a little code, and unlimited access to the web. Net neutrality ensures that the next Facebooks and eBays will continue to have the same unlimited access to the web.

Opponents to net neutrality say that it requires government regulations, and of course regulation in all forms is bad bad bad! Or it least it was was was until Wall Street fell apart. We’re a civil society, not a Darwinian experiment, for crying out loud. Regulations supporting net neutrality are a very good thing.

Similarly, and of critical importance to us here in the Berkshires, Obama’s on record for legislated universal service for “true” broadband internet. He’s in favor of hooking everybody up with cable / fiber based broadband (presumably “true” broadband doesn’t included telephony-based DSL, but I could be wrong here). How’s he gonna do that? The same way we all got electricity and telephone during the last century, by government programs that mandate that everybody who wants broadband gets it. Of course this is being met with insane charges that universal service represents “socialism” and worse from the lunatic right, who presumably would prefer that half of the country not have internet, or phone, or electricity. Their argument, that the “market” will miraculously provide high-speed internet service to all is absurd on its face and is absolutely disproved by our local experience. I’m sure those of you reading this in your dial-up internet Berkshire homes will readily agree.

I wouldn’t be surprised if universal broadband is a central part of Obama’s much-anticipated economic stimulus package. Broadband is a proven economic driver; included in its benefits is that it encourages telecommuting with all the efficiencies and savings that arise from people not having to commute to a central workplace. Pay attention to this one. Write a letter.

How about the meat and potatoes intellectual property stuff? What will Obama do with copyright law? Here there’s really no Obama policy trail, and I have to point out that copyright issues have never followed red state / blue state conservative / liberal lines. We have hideous overly protective copyright laws that bear little relation to the purpose of copyright, which is to encourage creativity. Rather, we have laws that have been stiffened and toughened incrementally for the purpose of protecting the business models of the Big Media companies, at a time when digital media has made these business models largely unsupportable. The disconnect between law and reality is demonstrated nowhere more clear than in the 30,000 or so lawsuits that the music industry has brought against music fans, mostly kids, for downloading and trading music over the internet. That’s disgusting.

We have appropriation art, and what Lawrence Lessig calls “re-mix culture,” hanging in legal limbo, largely at the pleasure of copyright owners and those few brave artists who fight when bullied, and the courts that decide the few random disputes that make it to court, and who are as likely to get it totally wrong as right. The law, as currently constituted and interpreted by the courts, is of little help to what truly is a cultural movement and a sea change on how things get created. It’s scary.

This bad set of circumstances is the fault of Democrats as much as Republicans. Vice President-elect Joe Biden, and most Democrats, has routinely voted in favor of whatever Hollywood and Big Media has wanted. Vermont Senator Pat Leahy has, too, and it may be just coincidence that he’s also had speaking parts in the last couple of Batman films. I mean, who knows?

Congress this year created a cabinet-level “intellectual property czar” at the urging of Big Media. No one else, it seems, thought this post was necessary. In fact, the Bush administration, the Department of Justice, and a mess of screaming-liberal public interest groups all lobbied to kill the position. For the most part, the “czar” was created to provide pro bono legal services to the Big Media companies, who seek the government’s largesse in enforcing their imperial copyrights.

So Obama’s stuck with this IP czar position, like it or not. I think the earliest indication of where he’s headed with real creative economy issues is (1) whether he fills the “intellectual property czar” post; (2) with whom he fills it; and (3) what he allows the “czar” to do.

We’ll know soon enough.

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