Ownership of Text and Copyright

To be completely honest, this class has tested whether or not I am comfortable with or enjoy coding and I have come to the conclusion that I generally am not and do not, but those are not necessary qualities in understanding the value these skills contain. If anything it gave me a perspective that I previously did not have, and I have a newfound respect for computer programmers and the intricate ways in which they must type in order to receive the expected outcome. However in speaking about what I learned specifically in the class, what truly striked me were discussions regarding the legality of aspects the internet influences, and how these laws dictate the creative process and intellectual property. One thing that I did not know before the semester that I now have a much better understanding of, is the extent to which the copyright term issue in the United States is related to the restriction of creative content by artists and authors. Going to the Lawrence Lessig lecture was a very eye-opening experience, and it ties very much into other conceptual themes discussed in class in regards to the presence of emerging technology influencing the increased monetization of art ruining the sanctity of the individuals text being contrasted with the way in which technology actually makes it easier to share texts and therefore increase the number of people able to contribute to creative discourse. I believe it is important to consider critically where preconceived notions are about knowledge, and about the way knowledge is disseminated. Often times this knowledge takes the form of art or “texts”, which is assigned varying degrees of value based upon the individuals personal beliefs of how art is meant to interact with its audience.

Previous to taking this class, I had watched the final episode of The Twilight Zone written by Rod Serling. The series’ enigmatic quality being the political statements made from Serling in the setting of science-fiction as not to cause total controversy for his views. The show began in 1959 with the last episode premiering June 19th, 1964. Despite not being the last episode to be aired, the last episode written and filmed for the show was titled Come Wander with Me. Before this class, I had mixed feelings about the non black-and-white ending, and the general ambiguities of the issues raised by the episode itself. The plot of the episode revolves around a man named Floyd Burney, a slightly raucous young man in his mid-twenties who arrives at a small town in search of inspiration for his latest song. I believed that the message of this episode (along with many others in the series) comes from that eerie gray area of morality, one that Serling has made it his mission to explore and subsequently define. Come Wander with Me plays on the words inscribed on a gravestone that Burney “callously” ignores, “Floyd Burney, the Wandering Man”. When asked by Burney to play the song again, Mary Rachel replies “The song is secret. It belongs to somebody”. What made me think about this episode in particular is the way in which Serling characterizes Burney, a wanderer who abuses the sanctity of the creative process by attempting to streamline and “steal” someone else’s lyrics and melody. He replies with “It can’t belong to anybody. You can’t buy it. It’s public domain”. It is a trope seen many times before in the show, an individual becomes too arrogant in believing they are correct, and the mystical forces which dictate the logic of The Twilight Zone rightfully leaves them with a fitting and/or ironic punishment. While previously watching the episode with a general inkling to agree with the narrator/writer, coming back to it after discussing themes about fair use and copyright law in the United States it made me view critique aspects of the language used to convey this idea of a man stealing creative property to consider a non-biased approach. Obviously Burney is a character that the audience is supposed to have mixed feelings over as his motivations never truly register as mean-spirited, yet his punishment along with almost all other fates the Twilight Zone offers is him receiving a punishment for implying that a songs worth is only measured in a dollar amount. Burney is a man exploring the extents to which he is allowed to borrow from others intellectual property. More specifically he is an out of towner who thinks himself more advanced due to his ability to reason and charm his way out of binds, out of his depth when he realizes his fate is sealed unwillingly by a demure siren who becomes increasingly more of a passive threat. While her physical body itself is not causing Burney any harm, the intellectual property she manifested from her physical body is literally trapping him into a reality of which he does not want to be apart of. He becomes an unwilling participant in her story about romance and murder, ending in his death. The message resonates as a statement regarding the inability to separate the physical body from the mind. Mary Rachel does not agree with Burney’s earlier statement that these lyrics fall under “fair-use”, because she feels that the intimate connection between a body and the creative work it produces is too sacred to be tarnished. The decentralized medium that the internet provides the public with abilities of disseminating information at high volumes, with little acknowledgment or understanding of the ways in which this new and different platform changes the way that individuals analyze and interact with the world around them. Mary Rachel represents the bond between the meta-data and the physical world, humans are the conduits by which these undying servers were born and humans are subject to the (almost always unintended) consequences of this intangible digital space, by nature of creating it. When Burney attempts to borrow from Mary Rachel’s song, he pushes her into singing for him. I believe it is this forcing of the creative process that Serling was critiquing, alongside fears of “fair-use” being used to justify stealing intellectual property.

While the themes raised in the episode seem to contradict Lessig’s own statements regarding pushing for a reduced amount of years intellectual property can be copyrighted, the symbolic representations of an individual enticed by new technologies and ideas to fall victim to an antiquated notion that the physical body and the mind must have a linkage. The commentary Serling crafted being the last written episode of the series shows the inevitability of the devaluation of the creative process. Devaluation in this context meaning losing an intrinsic sense of the sublime, and instead gaining a “useless” monetary value. The episode also focuses on the word “Wanderer”, giving it a negative connotation to be associated with Burney being somewhere that he does not belong when the audience sees it written on his tombstone. What makes the episode so difficult to support or disagree with one way or the other is that Serling’s observations regarding human nature are often so apt and well supported with nuanced dialogue and stark visuals, while this episode felt unsure regarding whether or not the punishment of its protagonist truly fit the subjective offense he had committed by asking Mary Rachel to play her song. This is due to the fact that the primary two concerns Serling has in the episode are regarding the monetization of the creative process, the increased mobility of consumers, and how both of these factors will lead to essential (yet NOT legally defined) “theft” of intellectual property. Serling is attempting to argue to the audience that Burney is not a dignified intellectual of the countryside, he is an urban con-man who refuses to see the ignorance in equating a lifetime of someone’s real experience all culminating to create a specialized personal text to its monetary value. Therefore he must experience what it is truly like to sacrifice for ones art instead of stealing the product of someone’s toils, he must give up his life to repent. However what Serling’s message lacks (especially considering it from a different decade with entirely changed technologies) is that it is increasingly difficult to maintain this artistic integrity in a decentralized age.

What the episode implies is that meaning from a text comes from the physical human experience that went into its creation, rather than the use of the literal words of text itself. Due to this fact, Mary Rachel’s song contains legitimacy in a way that it would lack if it came from Burney’s mouth. Mary Rachel sitting in the woods before being propositioned by Burney is telling, she is in nature, solitary, partaking in the act of transferring her experiences to a lyrical story. Serling is advocating for the same isolation that Thoreau speaks about in Walden, also showing a dislike for how urban life has infiltrated a previously simple one. Thoreau would most likely agree with the general sentiment of the episode, that Mary Rachel had created art not based on receiving payment and that justifies its importance. The issue with glorifying these texts is that it vilifies the individual’s response to increased industrialization or technology being that passions should be monetized to reflect the labor of one’s work. On the one hand Serling places the utmost importance in recognizing the value of creative work, yet fails to admit that individuals need money to live. He demonizes Burney for not recognizing the value of Mary Rachel’s song outside its dollar value, but the elephant in the room is that Burney is not to blame for his need to obtain money. Increased industrialization made it difficult to “live deliberately” unless individuals already had enough capital to sustain themselves. This is a key portion of Walden that I find troubling, that Thoreau fails to emphasize the importance of the gap between the rich and the poor driving this devaluation of art. It is not the laborers fault that he is now forced to work factory jobs instead of providing for oneself in a way that Thoreau or Serling deem “acceptable”. Therefore when an individual such as Barney is conditioned to equate the value of his passion (song writing) with a dollar value, it is not so much a conscious decision to steal away someone else’s property, rather it is indicative that there is an intrinsic divide between how individuals value creative property, and how this ambiguous area causes unnecessary criticism on behalf of individuals who are too economically disadvantaged to consider that there truly is any other value other than the one that keeps them alive. Poor individuals would enjoy the luxury of discovering their passions, but they are victims to a capitalist system that increasingly enforces the idea that an individual’s worth is based upon their wealth. So while attempting to make enough money to survive, intellectuals (such as Thoreau) are promoting a lifestyle that is completely out of touch with the reality of a majority of the population who also sees problems with increased industrialization yet unlike Thoreau, cannot object to partaking in it.

Lessig himself advocates for the loosening of copyright restrictions based upon the fact that it is not the author who receives compensation for their work, rather it is the publishing house who reaps these benefits. By placing the wealth out of the hands of publication lawyers profiting off of someones work (much like the way Burney is attempted to be portrayed as) through the limiting of copyright terms, Lessig is attempting to redistribute the creative material to be “fair-use” in order to increase the overall amount of creative work. The episode ends not with the final verse of the song Mary Rachel sings to signify the death of the protagonist, rather it is Burney inside a musical instrument store he visited in the beginning of the episode covering his ears from the increasing volume of various instruments playing at him in the abandoned store, coming from nowhere and everywhere all at once. Speaking before of Mary Rachel’s connection between the body and the text, Burney is subject to his physical body being undone from the torment of the intangible. Burney as well as the audience is not allowed to hear the final verse of the song, despite his direct involvement in its events at the time of her beginning to sing to him. It is an unsatisfying ending which is of course intentional, the text belongs to some-body. However in the age of the internet, while it is important to recognize the artist and how it is an intimate portrait of their own design, it is exceptionally difficult for text to gain any significant attention without it containing a certain amount of dollar value. For art to have value outside its monetary evaluation, the individual making it must first have enough money to support themselves in order to cultivate an environment in which they can craft their text, have enough self awareness about the systems which dictate socioeconomic class structures as to not fall victim to the impure allure of excess profit off of ones text, have a definition of value confirmed and supported by other individuals (preferably academics who also have the capital to debate ethics of living deliberately), and the platform by which to publish or somehow officiate ones text. By looking critically about the scale between the two extremes of creating art solely for profit and creating art solely for the enlightenment of ones soul, one can find Thoreau and Serling’s views on the side leaning toward embracing art for its physical connection to humans and the individuality of the creative process. Perhaps a few steps to the side of profit from the center would be Lessig, an individual who obviously acknowledges the practical value that sharing ideas causes, i.e. a more creative space for discourse that does not have to be constricted to purely academia. It is Lessig’s extensive knowledge of technology and its applications to law that provide him with the ability to reach this nuanced view on copyright and ownership, while maintaining that individuals should be the people who profit from their intellectual property instead of individuals who play to the advantage of working in a late stage capitalist country. It is the excess created through capitalism that was exacerbated from the industrial revolution and which continues to be from technological advancements today that Lessig wishes to challenge, as he recognizes from his privilege that, for example, the lessening of copyright terms would do more overall good for the freedom that creators have when producing art than the monetary value that they would receive if it was extended.
Ultimately what I have learned from this class is that there exists contradictions that can never be solved, technology is so ubiquitous in the zeitgeist now that conversations about Thoreau’s Walden must be discussed in entirely different circumstances than it once was. Of course that is the nature of text, if it remains relevant throughout many years than individuals will continue to read and analyze it based on the changing context of their personalized experiences with the world. If this is the value that Thoreau and Serling attempt to convey the importance of, it is just as important to recognize that individuals ever-changing perspectives will always lead to some speaking against the system that gave them the voice to do so in the first place.

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