Textbook recommendations for a college-level humanities class on copyright?
February 19, 2007 10:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm teaching a senior college-level class on "the culture of the copy" in the Fall. I want to cover some of the same material as Cory Doctorow's current USC copyright class but it's a humanities/English class and I'd also like to broaden the discussion a little to include history and art/culture/literature. So far I've got the open source/free software basics (Cathedral and the Bazaar, etc) and Marcel Mauss's book on gift economies.

So: any thoughts? The class is a senior, undergraduate seminar. It's a new job so I don't know the students yet, but it is an "honors college" in a public university system. Here's the blurb for the class:

"This seminar will cover issues of information ownership, copyright and exchange in digital cultures. We will start with a general overview of what it means to "own" objects and information within an economy of exchange, and move into information economies and their relationship to technological developments. We will learn about the current "copyright wars" and their relationship to developing movements in open source and open content.

In your final assignment, you will be given the opportunity to work on a practical open source or open content project of your choice, with the idea that you will "release" this project into the information ecology by the end of the semester."
posted by media_itoku to Education (26 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This is more related to criticism & analysis than history per se, but Rosemary Coombe's The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties is good on that level. I read portions of it in an IP seminar that was rather heavy on theory; the book is pretty dense, but I think the Honors College undergrads should be able to at least grasp the intro & some excerpts.
posted by rkent at 10:51 AM on February 19, 2007

I would recommend Siva Vaidhyanathan's book "Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity" for a nice overview and history of copyright / IP in the US.
posted by mattbucher at 10:52 AM on February 19, 2007

What about using one of Lawrence Lessig's books for part of your readings? He makes pretty and evidence-laden arguments in his speeches, and I can only assume that his written work is similar.

The Future of Ideas seems relevant to your course, based on the table of contents.
posted by janell at 11:01 AM on February 19, 2007

I second the use of Lessig. If you can find some decent quality video of one of his presentations, it might be even better. His presentations are chock full of info and pretty polished:
Lessig on Google Video
posted by chrisamiller at 11:04 AM on February 19, 2007

For art, how about the essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction".
posted by xo at 11:05 AM on February 19, 2007

Straight fiction, but definitely something you could give to your students and then ask "what do you think?"... Melancholy Elephants by Spider Robinson, made available as a sample chapter by the publisher (Baen) here: By Any Other Name.

Also interesting, but not really related to your class, something I ran across while looking up that story.
posted by anaelith at 11:05 AM on February 19, 2007

I taught a similar class last year. Here are some of the things I assigned:

• Lawrence Weschler. Boggs: A Comedy of Values. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999: pp. 1-40, 60-82, 95-116.

• Robert Siegel. “Paying Real Money to Win Online Games” All Things Considered (November 30, 2005). Available here.

• Cross, Gary. An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Chapters 2, 5, 6.

• Robert Kuttner. Everything for Sale: The Virtues and Limits of Markets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Introduction, Chapters 1 & 2.

• James Carrier. “Gifts, Commodities, and Social Relations: A Maussian View of Exchange.” Sociological Forum 6, no. 1 (1991): 119-136.
• Frank Davidoff. “Medicine and Commerce 1: Is Managed Care a 'Monstrous Hybrid'?” Annals of Internal Medicine 128, no. 6 (1998): 496-499.
• Frank Davidoff. “Medicine and Commerce 2: The Gift.” Annals of Internal Medicine 128, no. 7 (1998): 572-575.

• Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, edited by Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
• Golden, Janet. “From Commodity to Gift: Gender, Class, and the Meaning of Breast Milk in the Twentieth Century.” The Historian 59, no. Fall (1996): 75-87.

• Watch “The Merchants of Cool” PBS Frontline (60 minutes). Available here

• Watch “The Persuaders” PBS Frontline (60 minutes). Available here.
• Thomas Frank. “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent.” In Thomas Frank & Matt Weilan. Commodify Your Dissent! Salvos from the Baffler. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

• Juliet Schor. The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer. New York: Basic Books, 1998. Chapters 1, 2, 3.

• Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York: Harper Collins, 2004. pp. 9-75, 99-116.

• James Boyle. “Four Puzzles.” Chapter 2 of Shamans, software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. pp. 17-25.
• Siva Vaidyanathan. Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity. New York: NYU Press, 2001. Introduction, Chapters 1 & 5.
• John Seabrook. “The Big Sellout.” The New Yorker, October 20 1997. pp.102-195.

I particularly recommend Kopytoff's article (much more useful and shorter than Mauss); the Frontline shows on commercialization and the manufacture of "coolness"; Siva Vaidyanathan's book; James Boyle's work; and discussing the transformation of virtual capital from video games into real money.

Have fun!
posted by googly at 11:08 AM on February 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I would recommend handing out (or linking to):

The Bonnie Furlong's "The Parlourmaid’s Tale, or, MS in a Dustbin"

The Morning News held a contest in which the theme was not “why does anyone plagiarize,” but “why aren’t more people better at plagiarizing?”

Granted that plagiarism is a subset of broader copyright, intellectual property laws -- but it might be interesting from a humanities perspective.

The largest problem I can see you trying to address is that copyright and intellectual property laws asymmetrically benefit the owner economically. If one assumes that in a free market the emergent behavior (or shall we say, the infamous "invisible hand") trends toward efficiency it would be right to say let all copying be legal. Costs for digital replications would plunge (as bandwidth is more or less a commodity) to almost negligible amounts. It would be so low people would share it for free. The question then becomes, "is this good, would content producers still produce the quality and quantity without their large, legally subsidized paychecks?"

There's also a lot of copyright, nerdy humanities trivia. Specifically look at Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance. They had to do some dancing around upon the release of Pirates of Penzance to hold copyrights in both England and America, as their earlier work the Pinafore was widely distributed and played on Broadway without any royalties to the owner.

And of course as a true "man of letters", Ben Franklin, had no trouble distributing English novels in America, where they had no copyright.
posted by geoff. at 11:08 AM on February 19, 2007

seconding xo's Walter Benjamin suggestion.
posted by scody at 11:10 AM on February 19, 2007

On fair use in documentaries
posted by asuprenant at 11:16 AM on February 19, 2007

Again, Lessig, on his "last" presentation around copyright. The Flash presentation that was created around the talk is quite innovative and simple - I find it better to listen to this version than just the audio.

There is a bunch of stuff off of the O'Reilly site as well if you search on Lessig there.

Copyright and copywrongs, although a good book may be a bit much for the group you are talking about.
posted by fluffycreature at 11:20 AM on February 19, 2007

Larry Lessig's Free Culture
posted by santry at 11:22 AM on February 19, 2007

That's the benefit of teaching a class on this subject: professors who have done the same are usually pretty good about copylefting their stuff. I'm taking a course from Bob Frost here at the University of Michigan right now, and all his materials (syllabi, slides, etc.) available here: http://www-personal.si.umich.edu/~rfrost/courses/SI110/index.htm

At least the slide content, if not everything, is Creative Commons-licensed.
posted by electric_counterpoint at 11:41 AM on February 19, 2007

Speaking of copyleft...
posted by fluffycreature at 11:43 AM on February 19, 2007

Maybe Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan. It's not specifically about copyright issues but it's kind of vital to any discussion about electronic media.

The Walter Benjamin essay is good but it's hardcore weirdo Marxist theory. It might need some context in order to make it accessible to the folks that I'd imagine will take your class.

Also: Scott McCloud on micropayments (be sure to check out Clay Shirky's responses).
posted by aparrish at 12:14 PM on February 19, 2007

Jonathan Lethem wrote a terrific collage-essay in the February 2007 issue of Harper's magazine called The Ecstasy of Influence that you should definitely consider.
posted by umbú at 12:18 PM on February 19, 2007

You can read it here.
posted by umbú at 12:19 PM on February 19, 2007

Did you name your class after Hillel Schwartz's book The Culture of the Copy?

You don't mention it including it already, but it certainly seems appropriate!
posted by extrabox at 12:45 PM on February 19, 2007

How interested are you in the origins of copyright law? Some recent examples:

Mark Rose, Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993.

Marilyn Randall, Pragmatic Plagiarism: Authorship, Profit, and Power, Toronto: Toronto Univ. Press, 2001.^

Ronan Deazley, On the Origin of the Right to Copy, Oxford: Hart, 2004.^

There's a decent little article here by Mark Rose that deals with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century iterations of contemporary IP problems—the clash between individual rights and the interests of the public, etc.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:08 PM on February 19, 2007

Watch F for Fake by Orson Welles.
posted by sixacross at 1:20 PM on February 19, 2007

Thanks all for the great suggestions everyone! These are perfect (I love that Benjamin essay, and Boyle's work is very relevant).

And good catch, extrabox! - I *was* thinking of Schwartz's title, although the content is not quite what I'm looking for, ie it's more interested in image/doppelganger/simulacra etc.

As far as propaganda goes, well.. I think there's a fair amount of historical/critical commentary here which should at the very least provide a framework for analyzing (both positively and negatively) the more journalistic modern pieces. But I certainly don't have a problem with teaching students to think broadly and critically about consumer culture, given that they're saturated in it. What they decide to take from it (if anything) is up to them.
posted by media_itoku at 2:00 PM on February 19, 2007

You could also have them look at/read/listen to works of art where one artist has sampled, parodied, re-mixed, etc the work of another. This shows how copying is part of the natural process of MAKING culture in the first place.

Beowulf --> Grendel
Jane Eyre --> Wide Sargasso Sea
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde --> Mary Reilly
(lots of others in this same vein)
cut-up novels of Burroughs et al
very early parodic poems and novels (can't think of good examples at the moment, but there are some great ones)

mashups like the Gray Album, or the work of the Kleptones
jazz (the way traditional songs come up through lots of very different versions - gospel, jazz, soul, early rock, 70s rock, hip hip)
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:15 PM on February 19, 2007

I'd urge you to include actual transformative uses to make it more of a humanities/ English class. Maybe King Lear and A Thousand Acres. Find a good text that owes it's existence to a previous work and read both. Discuss what creativity or lack thereof the transformer exhibited. Heck, read fanfic. My concern is that so many of the suggestions are about theory and not about actual texts or works. [There was an interesting slideshow in Slate recently addressing the question of copyright/plagiarism of photos]
posted by Mozzie at 2:35 PM on February 19, 2007

Sounds like a great class. I don't see anywhere that primary sources are mentioned. I would think it would be worth reading the GPL, DMCA, the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act (the deliberations are also great if you can get them), and Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution -- just because students are going to want to know what the law says sooner or later. The Sony vs. Universal City Studios case is an easier read than you might think. When I teach IP in Business Ethics, I often juxtapose that case with the Napster case to show the whiplash in contemporary IP law.
posted by ontic at 4:54 PM on February 19, 2007

Email me for my dad's email (he's beelzbubba around here). He did a project a couple years ago when he was getting his masters on the culture of sampling and recombinant culture.
posted by klangklangston at 6:16 PM on February 19, 2007

I enthusiastically second watching F is for Fake.
It's a very cleverly composed pseudo-documentary and hits on all of the important themes related to our notion of an "original copy". Common sense would say that such a notion is absurd, and it is, and almost like a mathematical proof that begins by assuming an absurdity, Welles piles absurdity upon absurdity until the climax of the film, which I won't spoil. But it's the kind of twist that M. Night Shayamalan would aspire to imitate.
posted by archae at 10:57 PM on February 20, 2007

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