Not well fitted

An interesting discussion took place a little while back on the Big Ideas program on Radio National. Paul Barclay spoke with musician Lindy Morrison (formerly of the Go-Betweens) and writer Phillipa McGuinness about the future of copyright in the digital era. The discussion, not unreasonably, circled around the challenges facing musicians and other creative professionals in an environment where downloading, copying, and streaming digital files take precedence over the purchase or borrowing of physical artefacts.

As Barclay noted, one in three adults and half of 18–24-year-old Australians are actively engaged in downloading movies, music, and, yes, even books (sometimes).  Is it possible to protect the intellectual property of the creators of these works?  And if not, what does that mean for these industries?

These are enormous questions and McGuinness and Morrison both articulated strong and impassioned arguments that copyright is not the preserve of faceless corporations or industry bodies and that deliberate copying of content represents actual pain to real people and a danger to industries already financially constrained. I won’t argue their points, which were fair and reasonable, but I did notice that the discussion neatly sidestepped a couple of major problems with our basic assumptions of copyright, its purpose and benefits.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have form here. I did take part in a public debate called ‘Copyright is Dead, Long Live the Pirates’. And, although I didn’t entirely agree with the provocative title, I was on the affirmative team.

Rather than rely on the sensationalism of yet another premature declaration of death, let's put it this way:

Copyright as a concept is not well fitted for the digital world.

I know, it's not as catchy.

Regardless of how it was initially conceived and for whom it was initially intended to benefit, modern copyright has evolved into a mechanism intended to allow authors to benefit from original works by granting them control over it for a period of time. It means that creators of an original work should expect fair compensation and acknowledgement when their work is bought and sold, adapted, referenced, and so on.

I have no problem with that.

But although copyright is about more than a simple set of rules governing the ability to make copies of a given work, to my mind, the fundamental notion of the copy is central to its disruption at the hands of digital media.

Copyright was created with the medium of print in mind. To create a print copy of an existing work takes dedication, resources, time, and money. Copyright is an effective system in the physical world because, for an audience, the path of least resistance to obtaining a creative work is to buy it (or borrow it, which opens a whole different can of worms). Even with modern home scanning and printing technology, no one wants to go through the interminable process of making their own copy of anything in print. The payoff is not worth the effort, not when the local bookshop has good coffee and Amazon has a buy-it-now button. Under a system predicated on physical objects, readers buy books and some of that money reaches writers. It’s anything but perfect, but broadly speaking it kind of works.

Things are very different in the networked world of ones and zeros. The ability to make perfect copies of information is a basic function of computers. One of the reasons we all switched from vinyl to CDs was because digital music was sold to us as the perfect copy, the perfect reproduction of the sounds made in the studio. And it’s not just fidelity that makes digital copying so attractive; it’s also ease of use. So easy in fact that we’re no longer conscious of the volume of information we copy in any given day. The act of viewing information transmitted through the internet results in a bloom of copies that proliferate through the world. Not only that, we expect our content to be available on all our devices simultaneously. In the digital environment, making a copy of any given set of data is not just easy; it’s as natural as taking a breath.

This, for me at least, is the essence of copyright’s digital disruption. In the digital world, making a copy has become the path of least resistance. The copyright system simply cannot conceive of this reality and instead attempts to shoehorn digital content into behaving more like physical artefacts in order to fit more neatly. This is why we get ‘features’ like geoblocking and DRM that treat the audience as criminals first and readers second.

Copyright should be assumed to benefit artists, but all too often we see artists pushed aside in favour of other beneficiaries.

An extraordinary absence from the Big Ideas discussion was the impossibly sad case of Men at Work’s ‘Down Under’ and ‘Kookaburra’. Briefly, the 80s hit was found to have plagiarised the beloved 1932 song by Marion Sinclair, a court decision that many have said contributed to the death of Greg Ham, one of the artists involved.

Without getting too bogged down in the specifics of the case, it does prompt the question: who benefits when an artist’s copyright continues for fifty or seventy years after their death?

Protecting artists is one thing, but protecting ‘rights holders’ who bought the copyright from the estate of the dead artist seems to be something else entirely. Is this what copyright should be about?

Sadly, I don’t have solutions to these or to other problems surrounding copyright in contemporary Australia. But I do feel strongly that our treatment of intellectual property should be based around respect first for both artists and audience. The wishes of any other party should come a distant third.

if:book’s major project this year, Rumours of My Death, specifically digs through forgotten corners of Australia’s Public Domain to find authors and works that can continue inspire in 2015. The project asks three contemporary authors (myself included) to ‘collaborate’ with another writer’s work drawn from the Public Domain to create a new contemporary ‘remix’, an entirely new work that draws on its source material.

The Public Domain contains creative work that we all own; it is a gift from the artist to future generations and is the best reason I know of to continue making creative works in the hope that it will be accessible and valued (in ways that don’t have dollar signs attached).

My team won that debate, by the way.

Listen to the RN Discussion.

Read about Rumours of My Death.

More quotes from Flansburgh

It was great to chat recently with John Flansburgh from They Might Be Giants. Our conversation ran longer than the allotted time and we managed to cover a lot more than could fit into a proper published piece. So here are some quotes from the cutting room floor.

On the mechanics of Dial-A-Song and releasing a song a week this year.

We had a big plan to be super organised about it and, for a while, it held. We’ve been able to map it out for a couple of months at a time. We do have to do a lot in advance because you can’t just get a song up on iTunes overnight. So if you want to make it available you have to be organised to some extent. 

That being said, this week's song we finished last week. And the video we’re posting tonight, I finished working on this morning.

We don’t enjoy being stressed out. It’s not he the He-Man songwriting challenge part of it that we find interesting; it’s more the idea of working freely and needing to be light on your feet. It’s music easier to write a song if you’ve already just written a song.

On working to constant deadline.

The fact that it’s a year long meant it was something we felt up for. It would feel like a strange chore to have to do this in perpetuity. Although if you are a songwriter, that’s kind of what you do anyway.

We’ve done a lot of incidental music jobs and those are even stranger because if you're writing for a television show, they don’t want one song, they might want ten, twenty unique tunes a week, essentially each one a song. There’s a trick to that too, but it’s very very tough work.

On the importance of the running order in creating an album from Dial-A-Song songs.

We're just compiling the third album from Dial-A-Song now for release early next year.

I grew up with albums, so for me the album format is still important. It’s very odd to have this split use reality: songs that have to work on their own that then have to work within another context.

For a song like 'Let me Tell About My Operation', the sonics are kind of startling. It as recorded much like a song from the 1950s, a much more organic recording, a small number of microphones. It has a different quality to other songs we've done this year. And I imagine in a album context where you hear a lot of electronic stuff throughout, to suddenly find yourself listening something so different and organic, I imagine it comes across as something of a fresh breeze. That was kind of the idea behind the sound of that song.

Immersion is not a sensory experience

For a few months when I was around ten years old, I wanted to be a cartoonist. Looking back, it was a ridiculously weird thing for me to want to be, given that I couldn’t draw. But I had been inspired by a book I read, an early young-adult novel (probably before the category existed) about a kid who wanted to be a cartoonist. When I read, I was so immersed in the book’s world that I began madly drawing comic strips and dreaming of seeing them in the Courier-Mail. It’s probably just as well that the book’s title and author have been lost in the fog of memory, because the story has now taken on a slightly mystical quality in hindsight that it surely could never live up to in reality. But for a while there, I was hooked, inside that story. And although the details have faded, the memory of what the book inspired in me remains clear.

I assume you too have experienced this kind of immersion: the sense that the real world fades away and that you instead inhabit a world entirely of someone else’s making. And only after hours have whiled away do you re-emerge, blinking into the stark light of day, wondering what the hell just happened and why it’s suddenly so dark. Whether as reader or writer, immersion is a kind of peak experience. It can happen in film and television, in stageplays, and of course in gaming. But, for me, immersion is at its best and most powerful in text and especially in long form fiction.

My preference of form is just that: a preference. But I have a theory about why text is so powerful in this regard, which I’ll come back to. First, it’s important to distinguish what we mean when we talk about ‘immersion’.

It’s interesting that much of the discussion around ‘immersive design’ emphasises its medium, or rather media, of delivery and it’s true that some of the most immersive stories I’ve come across began in television, moved across to the web, then proliferated into podcasts, email lists, phone messages, apps, and poster campaigns. Transmedia stories that ‘break out’ of their original container can be heady and almost overwhelming, especially the first time around. But it’s not the mechanics of delivery that ultimately make a good transmedia story, something that becomes clear the more of them you experience. Like a magic trick, the wonder associated with each new shift in medium tends to pale with each repetition.

Then there’s virtual and augmented reality, technologies touted as the most intensely immersive experiences Silicon Valley can muster. Facebook’s Oculus Rift physically separates you from your visual reality and replaces it with stereoscopic images presented as close to your eyeballs as it can get. Microsoft’s Hololens takes a slightly different approach, not entirely shutting the world out, but rather overlaying it with ‘holographic’ display, allowing projected three-dimensional objects to interact with the physical environment around you. I’m not going to lie, this development looks completely awesome and I can’t wait to give both of these a spin at the first opportunity. But ultimately, what are these devices if not just souped up displays? New display technology is always impressive, at first. I remember being astonished the first time I experienced the iPhone’s capacitive touch display, but such astonishment was shortlived. Human beings habituate remarkably fast: ‘wow’ can turn into ‘now what?’ in seconds. That first flush of wonder at the holographic displays will quickly settle into the realisation of how ridiculous people look wearing goggles and stabbing at imaginary buttons in the air in front of them.

Overloading your visual cortex and drowning out reality is the shallowest form of immersion, achieved through brute force. If ‘immersion’ simply means pushing the real world aside and replacing it with something else, then what happens when everyone gets used to visual overload? Do we begin an arms race of sensory stimulus? A pair of good headphones will tie the auditory sense in pretty easily and we’re already working on haptic displays that give us tactile feedback. But then what about taste and smell? And don’t forget proprioception: the sense of our body’s position in space. Is it only when the last of our senses have been conquered will we finally achieve true immersion?

But wait a second. Let’s go back to that kid who thought he could be a cartoonist despite all evidence to the contrary. Let’s go to any of the times you might have found yourself lost in a book prompted by nothing but black marks on an off-white background. One of the most extraordinary things about reading is that we are not even conscious of what our senses are doing.

Immersion is not a sensory experience; it is a cognitive one.

What drives immersion in transmedia and what will ultimately drive immersion in the Rift or the Hololens has nothing to do with medium or technology. Immersion comes from ideas, characters and scenarios that have been well thought out and put forward with clarity and creativity. Text is capable of creating incredibly powerful immersive experiences in a container that offers a deliberately limited sensory experience. This is its strength. In text, the distance between you and the story reduces to almost nothing.

Concern for ‘the future of the book’ is frequently code for the future of a particular type of reading experience: the cognitive immersion of ‘losing yourself in a good book’, the falling away of time and space and the curious intimacy of a one-on-one relationship between reader and writer. We will find new ways to deliver ‘immersive’ stories, but success in transporting us from reality will always depend on factors beyond the means of technology.

The Deep South

The if:book project Memory Makes Us has taken me to Decatur, GA just outside of Atlanta for the Decatur Book Festival.  


The Greatest Stories Ever 'Told'

A new episode of the podcast I record with some chancer called Darren Groth is up and available. The podcast is called Fireproof Garage. The episode is called The Greatest Stories Ever 'Told'. It's about great storytelling as spoken word. Sort of.

The episode is here if you want to listen via your web browser.
To subscribe to the podcast, here's the link to the RSS feed. 
And here's the link to iTunes where you can leave a five star (out of 100) review.