Mark Helprin: Copyright Twit of the Year

Bob Guccione used to crown people Asshole of the Month or Year, respectively, based on the sheer egregiousness of their assholery.  I’ve  previously featured copyright and patent twits of the week.  But sometimes you run across a twit whose twittishness rises above the ephemeral standards of the week, and deserves special recognition.  Mark Helprin’s twittishness belongs to the ages.

Remember that old saying of Gandhi’s?  First they ignore us, then they mock us, then they fight us, then we win.  The forces of proprietary content, in their war against the open-source movement, have scrambled those stages in an utterly perverse fashion.  In the 1990s, when the digital and network revolutions were barely underway, rather than ignoring us they attacked us full force with the Uruguay Round TRIPS accord and the DMCA.  Then we won (we have for all intents and purposes demonstrated the unenforceability of the digital copyright regime).  Now they try to swing public opinion when the war’s already been lost:  not only introducing clumsy and laughable publick skool anti-”songlifting” campaigns likely to be received about as respectfully as abstinence education, but bringing out their least competent spokesmen—clownish pedants like Mark Helprin—to mock us.

Helprin, in Digital Barbarianns, seems to be coming from an ideological place much like Andrew Keen and Thomas Frank:  a resentment, by New Class intellectuals whose values were shaped in the old Broadcast Age, of the kind of democracy that network culture permits.  Helprin’s disdain for “blogging ants” and Wikis “written the way Popeye talks” is comparable to Keen’s resentment of the old cultural gatekeepers’ dispossession by the “cult of the amateur,” and Frank’s knee-jerk defense of Taylorism and Weberian industrial bureaucracy against the New Economy (with the Whole Earth folks as tattooed and pierced fellow travelers of Dick  Armey and Tom DeLay—a mirror-image version of Helprin’s view of Creative Commons).

What pass for arguments, in Helprin’s polemic, are utterly incoherent.

Helprin nowhere states any objective standard of property rights, beyond a reflexive blanket genuflection toward all things called “property,” and the utilitarian principle that creators ought to be paid.

Take, for example, his opening anecdote:  he stops to eat an ear of corn growing on a roadside farm in Iowa during a cross-country bike trip, and is ripped a new one by the angry farmer.   One of the commenters at the NPR website (where the story was posted) pointed out the delicious irony of a subsidized American corn farmer (“someone whose entire industry would collapse without a system of government patronage”) lecturing Helprin on theft, and Helprin’s use of the anecdote to assert the moral authority of the similarly coddled and protected culture industry.

Apparently this trauma, and Helprin’s appropriate guilt over having taken the tangible property produced by another person’s labor, was transmuted into an uncritical reverence for anything called “property.”  Property, he says, is the “guarantor of liberty,” and “to be defended proudly.”

You may recall that Huck Finn had a similar uncritical reverence for all things designated by the word “property.”  Having run away with the Widow Douglas’s slave, Jim, Huck was torn apart by guilt over having thus wronged his benefactor (she who tried to “sivilize” him).  In the end, the sivilizing didn’t take, because Huck proved himself to be better than the morality of the slaveocracy.  His final resolve, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” was followed by the first peaceful night’s sleep since he left home.

It’s not always possible to tell just what Helprin’s so worked up about.  For example, he decries the loss of “authorial voice” in a world of peer production and Wikified collaboration.  But it’s hard to figure out what digital copyright even has to do with any of this.  His legislative agenda affects mainly the unauthorized reproduction of proprietary work under the original author’s name.  The misappropriation of identity is a very minor problem—which stands to reason, if you think about it.  When people go to The Pirate Bay, they’re shopping for a free download of a known work by a known author.  Who’s going to download a pdf of Pet Sematary by Joe Blow, or an mp3 of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by I. P. Freely?  If by “authorial voice,” on the other hand, Helprin means borrowing other people’s ideas and building on them in your own way, copyright law can’t do a damned thing about that:  as he himself admits, you can’t copyright ideas.

And his alarm over the loss of “authorial voice” is ironic, given his almost complete failure to cite any major anti-copyright writers as the source of the arguments he attempts to refute.  In fact, he fails to address many of the major anti-copyright arguments at all, giving little indication (despite the fact that this book was written in response to the debate sparked by his earlier NYT op ed in which he called for the indefinite extension of copyright terms) that he is even familiar with the arguments of the other side.  All the alleged copyright communists he mentions by name are actually quite mushy moderates:  no Stallman,  no Boldrin and Levine, no Kinsella—just lots of Lawrence Lessig.

At times, the juxtaposition of Helprin’s criticisms of the free culture movement with the rights he claims for proprietary content owners seems to be an act of deliberate sabotage:  intentionally or not, he does to the Copyright Nazis what Stephen Colbert does to the Republicans.  Helprin is not just an ignoramus, but the kind of muddled thinker who mercilessly contradicts himself and spins out non-sequiturs with a total lack of self-awareness.

Helprin denounces the Left’s sense of entitlement, their demand for guaranteed outcome, and their hatred of property.  And he does all this in the course of arguing that proprietary content owners are entitled to a guaranteed right of return on their “intellectual property,” even if it requires violating the real—i.e., tangible—property rights of all the rest of us.

For example, one of the alleged strikes against the anti-copyright folks is that they favor a world that is “planned, controlled, decided, entirely cooperative, and conducive of predetermined outcomes”—as opposed to his own preference for “market based systems that admit and honor chance, competition, unexpected developments, peril and reward.”  But the whole purpose of copyright is to protect proprietary content owners against such chance and competition, and to guarantee them a predetermined outcome.

He views the limitation of copyright as privileging the collective over the individual—when in fact copyright privileges one individual over another, to the extent that one individual is restricted in his use of his own property, in order to guarantee an outcome to the privileged party.

He asserts that the elimination of copyright would only be practicable in a centrally planned economy without private property—showing an utter lack of awareness of business models by which content creators can and do make money without copyright.

Helprin says he favors free markets and private property, but contrasts what private sector non-profits to what he calls “private industry.”  He justifies the distinction by pointing to non-profits’ tax-exempt status. But (wait for it!) he argues elsewhere that “intellectual property” should be given special treatment for purposes of taxation, and exempted—alone, among other other forms of property—from taxation.

Despite his avowed fondness for private property, he singles out the Creative Common license—in fact a regime under which authors license their own work under the terms of copyright law—for repeated denunciation.  He recounts seeing an expensive car driven by rich kids, with an “Eat the Rich” bumper sticker, and describes them as the direct ancestors of the Creative Commons movement.  Creative Commons, he argues in an astounding leap of illogic, is a movement of rich parlor socialists who want to give away others’ “intellectual property” for the sake of “economic justice.”  The Creative Commons movement, he says, is based on “the infantile presumption that a feeling of justice and indignation gives one a right to the work, property, and time… of others….”  Such people, he writes indignantly, “should first divest [themselves]” of their own property.  Huh?  Creative Commons simply allows copyright holders to license their own work for use under comparatively liberal terms; if one can license someone else’s work against their will under CC, it’s a new one on me.

He denounces collaboration—voluntary collaboration by consenting adults—as the first step toward Red Ruin.  So Helprin supports free enterprise (so long as it’s not a nonprofit or cooperative), intellectual property (so long as the rights-holder doesn’t give it a CC license), and freedom of economic choice (so long as no actor on the market decides to collaborate with anyone else).  Helprin, in other words,  is a vulgar libertarian:  he likes “free markets,” so long as “free market” is tacitly understand to mean a world dominated by for-profit corporations.

He supports private property and free markets, so long as nobody organizes or invests in the kind of business enterprise he doesn’t like, licenses their copyright in ways that he doesn’t like, or cooperates with other free individuals in ways that he doesn’t like.  So long as the entitled class of actors he favors get their guaranteed outcome, the “free market” is great.

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