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October 30, 2006

Google Screws YouTube

And before the digital ink had dried--Goodbye YouTube.

Posted by stevemack at 02:42 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 27, 2006

Copyrights, Copy Wrongs

Whatever progressive reforms the Democrats may usher in after the November elections, you can pretty much bet that one of them won’t be a democratization of the increasingly oligarchic copyright law. As far as I can tell, it’s an issue on nobody’s radar screen. (And will likely stay that way unless they start going after YouTube—which they might, or might not.)

Too bad. Works of art, whether they take the form of fiction, film, painting, or what-have-you, are more than one owner’s intellectual “property.” They are the terms a society uses to define itself. Art tells us about our past, helps us settle on a meaning for the present, and enables us to imagine the future we wish to build. Through art, we crystallize our values, dramatize our failings, and orchestrate our hopes.

This special role art plays in a culture’s internal conversation complicates the very idea of ownership. Of course, artists are entitled to the commercial rewards of their work—but forever? Surely there needs to come a time when a work has become so successful, become so much a part of our common language, has integrated itself so fully with the way we think that we have a right to say “it’s ours.” Fitzgerald doesn’t own The Great Gatsby, we do. Hawthorne doesn’t own The Scarlet Letter, we do. And because we own them—and can reinterpret them in a thousand different ways—we’re able to talk about ourselves more deeply.

This point has been made often and elegantly by Larry Lessig and others. Moreover, they’ve offered some very useful answers with their Creative Commons. But as Lessig himself would likely acknowledge, his is only an attempt to ameliorate the ills of a deeply troubling, entrenched legal environment. There are two problems and they complicate each other: First, of course, there is the “duration” issue—the unsavory ways commercial interests have extended their monopolistic control over art, thus restricting the public’s ability to use the art in public debate. The second problem is complicated by the duration issue: “fair use.” If works of art could more quickly come into the public’s sphere, restrictions over its use would be less troublesome. But the fact that they are protected for so long creates profound political and moral problems.

Consider, for example, Blanch v. Koons, decided in November of last year and affirmed yesterday by Judge Sacks of the Second Circuit. The facts, as summarized by William Patry, are:

plaintiff, for $750 dollars, did an advertisement for Gucci silk sandals. The photo depcited a woman's lower legs and feet (wearing the silk sandals) resting on a man's lap in an airplane cabin. The photo appeared in a six-page feature in Allure magazine. Koons was commissioned by Deutsche Bank and the Guggenheim Museum to create a series of seven paintings, which he later called "Easyfun-Ethereal." One work, "Niagara," was at issue. In Niagara, Koons (or more accurately, perhaps, his "assistants") depicted several sets of women's lower legs juxtaposed against food and landscapes. He intended to "comment on the ways in which some of our most basic appetites -- for food, play, and sex -- are mediated by popular images. ... By reconceptualizing these fragments as I do, I try to compel the viewer to break out of the conventional way of experiencing a particular appetite as mediated by mass media." And Fox News is fair and balanced. Koons made good money on the project, but Blanch admitted Koons' use didn't harm her career, upset any plans she had for her work, or decrease its value.

What was at issue here, legally—but more important, politically as well—was not just the commercial ownership of the original work. It was the political significance of the original work. And its political significance is not unrelated to its commercial value. Indeed, Koons’ own work depended upon the commerical viability of Blanch’s work. In one sense, the commercial success of the original work made it an appropriate target for the critical reinterpretation.

In Patry’s commentary on the case, it seems reasonably clear that the law has evolved to accommodate just such concerns. And, indeed, the case was decided fairly. But this does not resolve the larger problem. How many advertisers, or studios, or music labels or media companies believe it is in their financial interest to protect their products from being reinterpreted for use as social criticism? Every one of them, I bet. And how many “struggling artists” have a legal team at their disposal—especially one ready to go up against those well financed commercial powerhouses? Few, I imagine.

Posted by stevemack at 04:39 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 25, 2006

Married and Gay in New Jersey

In a unanimous decision today, the New Jersey Supreme Court all but decided that gay marriage was a fundamental right (at least in New Jersey). The Court gave the legislature 180 days to enact a law that, if it didn’t outright affirm the legality of gay marriage in name, must do so in all other particulars except the name.

Good for them—and good for us.

I don’t know anything about New Jersey law, but the ever clever and rights-stingy Eugene Volokh seems to tolerate (if not fully accept) the court’s legal reasoning. Two kinds of arguments were made: a fundamental rights claim, and an equal protection claim. The first Volokh regards as an unsupportable “cultural” interpretation (the usual definition of fundamental rights being those rooted in tradition). But his deepest concern is with the second claim:

On the second claim – equal protection – the New Jersey courts have interpreted the state constitution in ways that are very different from the federal precedents and many other state courts. New Jersey does not follow what the court calls the “rigid” three-tiered scrutiny of the federal equal protection cases: “strict scrutiny” for race classifications, “intermediate” scrutiny for sex/gender classifications, and “rational basis” for almost every other kind of classification. (In fact, the New Jersey state constitution does not even contain an explicit equal protection guarantee.) Instead, the state courts have adopted a “flexible” test that calls for distinctions between “similarly situated people” to be justified by “a substantial relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose.”

The problem with this argument is that it puts Gays and Lesbians, people whose fundamental identity has been assigned to them by nature, in the same legal category of guys who don’t want to wear motorcycle helmets. It seems to assume that the desire to marry, even the condition of being homosexual, is a matter of choice to be controlled by state interest.

Volokh is not interested here in ghettoizing the gay community. His ultimate goal is to preserve a middle ground, where states are free to experiment with such social policy, without having tentative or provisional steps in that experimental process get cemented into law. The actions of aggressive courts like New Jersey’s, he fears, will have a chilling effect on any legislature in the future that might want to push the social policy envelop a bit. He writes:

Seen in this light, the New Jersey court’s quotation from Justice Brandeis’ famous dissenting opinion praising the states as “laboratories” to “try novel social and economic experiments” is a bit ironic. The New Jersey court now holds that once the state substantially experiments with gay equality it must go all the way, ending the experiment.
While the result in this case is surely a good one for gay families, it may chill experiments in other states where legislators might fear that they cannot move incrementally toward equality for gay couples without surrendering the judicial basis for any remaining distinctions.

In a nutshell, what’s at stake here, Volokh says, is not gay rights but the integrity of the democratic process.

This is not an unreasonable point to make. In fact, the “political process” argument has always been persuasive, on this and other such issues. It’s sometimes argued that the reason abortion rights have long been recognized in Europe is because they were won through the political process rather than by judicial fiat. Democratic politics is not just a tug of war for the heart of the majority; in a more profound sense, it’s the process by which a whole culture works through necessary changes in its system of values.

Moreover, deference to the political process seems to have become a mantra of both right and left. It was the practical effect of Justice Breyer’s book, Active Liberty, and it is the single note of every song Justice Scalia sings in nearly every speech he gives or every opinion he writes.

And it doesn’t necessarily mean that Gays and Lesbians are being left out in the cold. If Andrew Sullivan is right when he claims that the argument for Gay marriage is a fundamentally conservative argument, then the political process may eventually yield a more happily stable result.

What bothers me though is that the overemphasis on democratic process is effectively a repudiation of principle—not of “a” principle, but a repudiation of principle itself. Consider, for example one of Scalia’s favorite arguments for majoritarian process: it starts with the woman’s suffrage example. Back in the day, he says, no one doubted that the only proper vehicle for securing the vote for women was the amendment process. It came when the culture was ready, and no body has seriously challenged it sense. But if suffrage had to be won today, they’d bypass the political process altogether and head straight for the courts. And he’s right, of course. Even third rate lawyers would have an easy time today making first rate arguments that women were equal to men, possessing all the inalienable rights that men enjoy.
Great argument—but why stop there? By these lights, shouldn’t we have voted on the proposition of racial equality? Indeed, in terms of cultural resistance, racial equality has clearly been a harder sell. Maybe if good white people like me had a few more decades to get comfortable with the idea, we wouldn’t mind letting black folk vote.
No, bad argument! Sometimes, democratic principles need to trump democratic practice. And fundamental human equality is one of those principles; and at least in New Jersey, today is one of those times.

Posted by stevemack at 10:23 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 20, 2006

The Military Commissions Act: A Right to Torture?

The usual argument one hears for the Military Commissions Act signed last week by the President is both compelling and familiar. It’s the argument for virtuous torture, a staple of Hollywood thrillers. The narrative goes like this: If you’ve got a really really bad guy strapped to a chair down at the station (the crazy evil type with a splotchy face and a poorly groomed moustache) and you can’t make him talk, pronto, the dirty bomb he planted at City Square Orphanage is gonna blow in forty-five minutes! Thousands will die. No time to be nice. You’ve got to beat the shit out of him, cut off his fingers, crack his kneecaps, whatever—just make it fast! That red digital clock he duck taped to the black shoebox bomb thingy keeps beeping and it’s getting close to “000.00”.

It’s a slam-dunk (to use CIA jargon). You’ve got to be an ACLU lawyer or an obese police captain worried about retirement not to get it. Torture ‘til he talks, right?

Well, right. I would anyway.

And given that scenario, I’d probably keep whacking away long after the credits have ended. And so would my 87 year old mom. And so would you. And, truth told, so would that ACLU lawyer. (That’s everybody except obese police captains and they never get it.)

But the question really is, why is this a good rationale for throwing away habeas corpus, legalizing (i.e., institutionalizing) torture, and offering a carte blanche to every brutal dictator on the planet to rewrite the Geneva accords to suit themselves? Why, in other words, is it smart to reshape the law (and pervert fundamental American values) just to be “legally prepared” for such an extraordinary hypothetical?

It isn’t smart. To see why, consider this hypothetical.

Let’s say I’m out camping by the lake. I think I’m alone until I notice you, fishing a few yards away. We strike up a conversation. Suddenly, you drop to the ground, writhing and gasping for air. Now, I don’t have any medical training but I’ve seen enough TV to know how to perform an emergency tracheotomy when I have to.

So, out comes my trusty screwdriver and a few seconds later, presto! You’re breathing. I’ve saved your life. I’m a hero.

Three weeks later, presto again; out comes your lawyer. I’m a respondent in a civil action—you’re suing me for mutilating you. And the laws of decency and gratitude notwithstanding, the laws our (unnamed) state are on your side.

This is a terrible injustice, isn’t it? But how do we fix it?

For those who share the worldview of George Bush, the answer’s a no-brainer: pass legislation that would, 1) authorize well intentioned citizens to perform tracheotomies in situations they perceive to be emergencies, and 2) prohibit the courts from reviewing those “emergency procedures” to determine how proper they really were. Well, change “private citizens” to “CIA interrogators,” “emergency” to “terrorist threat,” and “tracheotomy” to “torture,” and you’ve got the essential logic of the Military Commissions Act. (A WH summary of the act is here, the White House signing statement is here.)

Whether I’m wandering the forest with a screwdriver honing my surgical skills or thrashing some swarthy terrorist in a race against the clock, the law is generally not on my side. We don’t lower the bar to accommodate the violence of reckless do-gooders. This is probably true even if I’ve sized up the emergency correctly. And it’s especially true if I’m wrong (if, say, I’ve poked a hole in somebody having an epileptic seizure or smashed the knuckles of a deaf-mute janitor). We don’t give our spooks a real license to kill. We don’t riddle the Constitution with loopholes.

But, if I am right, what jury of my peers will find against me? None—not in Massachusetts, not in San Francisco. None. And if every fifty or seventy years or so some real life 007 happens to make a little human sausage in the process if actually saving the day we don’t need to revise the Constitution to protect him from our legalistic selves. A little technicality or a strategically “botched” investigation should do the trick.

But of course, as Bush loyalist John Yoo boasts, this is not really about security, terrorism or anything else except executive power—and more precisely, about the willingness of this executive to undermine both the judicial branch and the law itself in order to grab it. Senator Spector seemed to understand this when he predicted that the court would kick it back to the Senate. Apparently, it’s only a matter of time. Let’s hope then it is also about the Supreme Court living up to its honorary title of defenders of the Constitution.

Posted by stevemack at 02:22 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . that Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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