Monthly Archives: October 2009

Must-Read Article: Doctorow on Corporate Bullying

I feel like I write about Cory Doctorow a lot on here. Maybe that’s because I’m secretly dreaming of writing a book-length study of how writing is portrayed in science fiction, and I know his work would be a stellar candidate for rhetorical analysis. But probably it’s mostly because his ideas make whole lot of stinking sense.

In an important wake-up call to Internet users, Doctorow recently published a piece in the UK’s Guardian, “Corporate Bullying on the Net Must Be Resisted.” He tells the story of a cease-and-desist letter his ISP received from Ralph Lauren after one of his colleagues at BoingBoing posted one of Lauren’s photos for the purpose of commenting on it–which, he points out, means that their use of the photo falls firmly in the area of fair use. (For good advice about Fair Use see this awesome video and report from American University’s Center for Social Media.)

His ISP declined Lauren’s stupid pushiness, and Doctorow and pals posted Lauren’s mean letter for public mockery online. But he adds an important warning:

It is the norm for ISPs to remove anything and everything on receipt of a legal notice. A group of Oxford internet researchers tried an experiment with this a few years ago, posting copies of John Stuart Mill’s 1869 On Liberty on a variety of European ISPs’ servers, and then sending notices to the ISPs purporting to come from Mill’s copyright holders (Mill’s copyrights are nonexistent, having returned to the public domain more than a century ago) and demanding that On Liberty be taken down. All but one of the ISPs in the study complied.

And why not? For a free hosting service such as Blogspot or YouTube or Flickr or Scribd, the lifetime profit from a given customer is likely exceeded by the cost of one call to a solicitor asking for advice on a takedown notice. Even paid services operate on such razor-thin margins that they’re unlikely to seek legal advice in the face of most threats.

In other words, if a copyright holder sends a cease-and-desist letter, users aren’t necessarily in violation. It’s like when the middle school bully gets up in your face and tells you that you stole his lunch, even though you didn’t.

This has wide-ranging implications for education, and especially for writing teachers, of course. When our students create multimodal compositions from found material online, it’s part of the academic system for those students to cite their sources–but in most cases, if they’re only using parts of the copyrighted work and if their purpose is to critique, they aren’t legally required to get the copyright owners’ permissions. And that’s even if they get a nasty letter.

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Open Sourcing Social Media Consulting

Of late, I’ve been increasingly surprised and impressed with the variety of disciplines I’ve been tiptoeing into–a natural side-effect of reading about intellectual property, remixing, and the changing face of writing. It’s great fun . . . but I also get the impression that we rhetoric/composition folks dip into our friends’ pools more than others drop by to swim with us and see what we have to say. Is that just me? Not to get all defensive or anything. . . .

This morning, for instance, I found myself for the first time at Harvard Business Publishing’s “Conversation Starter” blog, thanks to my Google News alert for “intellectual property.” (It wasn’t really that long ago that, as an undergraduate English major, I would push my ponytail aside and scoff into my espresso if people told me they were studying business.)

I was directed to a stellar post, “Will Social Media Consultants Practice What They Preach?” by Alexandra Samuel, CEO of Social Signal, a social media consulting firm. (“Hey business X! Be hip! We’ll help!”) Basically, she’s announcing that she’s tired of social media consulting firms touting the importance of freedom, openness, sharing, etc., without actually stepping up and being free and open themselves. To that end, Social Signal is going to start giving away their intellectual property under Creative Commons licenses, sharing their ideas and previous work for free, as long as people agree give credit, not turn around and sell it, and use a similar license if they post it at their own site.

What I especially like here is the group admitting how terrifying a process this can be, but going ahead and doing it anyway. I mean, look at me, a graduate student in (at least at my university) a subdiscipline of English studies. I’ve never had the need for social media consulting, but all of sudden, because of this choice of theirs, I firmly have their company’s name hovering in my brain. The first time I come across someone needing this kind of service (and my wife, working in the nonprofit arts sector, surely knows lots of groups who could use some serious consultations), Social Signal will come up in the conversation. This business move is a recognition of the natural way ideas move; it’s not a replacement for making money, but a more real way of making money. I love it.

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Take My Book. Please.

No surprises here: concerning book sales,

A year-long study has revealed that peer-to-peer piracy could actually boost sales, rather than eat into overall purchases. (via

The trick, of course, is having the guts to do so in the first place. Even Cory Doctorow, in some essay that I think is in his Content collection, says that the first time he gave a book away he held back a little, using a more restrictive Creative Commons license. But he loved the experience so much, and he seemed to be selling more books than he would have otherwise, that he went even loosier-goosier with future books–and never looked back.

And now, there’s some research to back up his strong hunch. Sweet!

But like I said, taking that step is hard. Even with a department-written textbook that my colleagues and I put together over the summer, when I brought up the idea of putting it online, I was told by two knowledgeable, professional folks in drippingly sweet terms that if it were online, no one would buy it. So we reserved all our rights. I know the context here is probably different: a student who can get access to a textbook for free isn’t going to have that experience of, “This is so great, I want to be able to read the rest in a paper copy, and I’m willing to pay for it!” But that authorial fear of, “Should I let this get away from me?” was there, at least in a small way, nibbling at our (my) love of good content freely available online.

In the future, I’m going to ask the publishers what they think. For someone like me, I need all the publicity I can get–and now I can point to this story to back me up.

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Pitchfork Track Review: Lemonade, “Bliss Out (Gold Panda Remix)”

I find I tend to disagree with Pitchfork‘s reviews, but maybe that’s because I come expecting snobbery, and because it’s hard for me to admit that banks I feel connected to could possibly decline in quality. (Me and Pearl Jam are like 19 and 20. For all time.) Yet like a mistreated pet, I keep coming back for more.

I mention this because of a super line in their brief track review of a recent remix track: a Gold Panda remix of Lemonade’s “Bliss Out,” on Sunday Best Records:

Remixes are less about making music than they are about listening: Good remixers hear things in existing tracks and start to get ideas.

Amen, brutha. Read the review and streawm the mellow instrumental happiness here.

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Some Plain English and Clotted Cream, Please

There’s a great article in yesterday morning’s Wall Street Journal about Chrissie Maher, founder of the Plain English Campaign.

She sees incomprehensible legalese mumbo-jumbo from what we might call a social justice perspective:

“Families are losing their homes because of jargon-filled credit agreements,” says Ms. Maher, an energetic presence in a crocheted sweater and eyeglasses. “Language has been misused and has contributed to the economic disaster.”

It’s a good point. It reminds me of the time a few months ago when my wife visited a neighbor in the hospital. The neighbor couldn’t read, and while the nurses had read various brochures to her, my wife discovered that she didn’t really understand them at all; it turns out (surprise!) that simply reading a complex collection of sentences at someone’s face doesn’t mean that you’ve taught them that information.

It also makes me think of our experience buying our first house, a bit more than a year ago. I was regularly e-mailing and calling our mortgage and realty people, saying things like, “I know that you’ve explained this before, but I really need to make sure I understand it perfectly. What exactly do you mean by [fill in the blank with any of the 37 terms I could never quite get my head around]?” And let’s remember: my wife and I both have masters degrees from prestigious universities, and I’m working on a PhD in a distinctly language-oriented field. It’s not incorrect to say that my job is deciphering meanings in texts.

Add to that the layers of power that are at work here. A poor, black, uneducated woman is made aware of these identities every time she wades through worlds where rich, white, educated men predominate (like hospitals). That would be enough to keep anyone from wanting to ask for clarification after clarification in the way that I had the societal power to do when I bought my house, as a comparatively rich, white, educated man. This helps me understand, too, the reason why so many of my mostly poor, mostly minority neighbors don’t use banks. The answer I’ve always gotten was, “I just don’t trust them.” Well, why would you trust an organization with such an ability to do incomprehensible things and then “explain” them with incomprehensible language?

Two parting thoughts:

  1. I notice that a lot of the writing genres described in the WSJ article are the kind that don’t have an author’s name tagged on to them–things like policy explanations, bank websites, etc. (Foucault–and I hate to go here–would say that these kinds of text aren’t awarded the “author function” by society.) I half wonder if the collaborative writing process mixed with company power relations lead to unclear language; I can imagine a lower-down, newer employee being told to revise an older draft of a statement in legalese, and him thinking, “Well, I ought to try to imitate this ultra-formal, high-vocab type of language.” And then the next person who gets it thinks the same thing, and so on. But I’m hesitant to say that, because there’s so much I like about collaborative writing.
  2. I think there are some implications here for how we teach professional and technical writing. Like, in the past I would say, “It’s important to write in a clear, direct style so that your readers can skim your text and understand it easily; this keeps them in your good graces.” But this article reminds me that I can also say, “It’s important to write in a clear, direct style because this is a way to include the marginalized; this empowers them to enter places they’ve historically been kept away from.” Interesting stuff.

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T-Pain Remixes Obama

A perfect example of how prevalent remixing is becoming in today’s culture: Jimmy Kimmel has T-Pain autotune some recent Obama speeches over a hip hop beat–you really just need to hear it.

Think of the levels of authorship here: the speechwriters, to Obama, to media distribution, to T-Pain, to Kimmel and his distribution, to YouTube, to beyond. Who exactly owns which parts of this clip? Answer: it’s in the commons.

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Good Intro to the Need for Remix

I’m glad to see articles pop up like Jonathan Melber’s recent piece on The Huffington Post, “A Remix Manifesto for Our New Copyright Czar.” It’s a good introduction to the importance of remix and the need for revamped copyright laws to protect cultural expression. Some favorite quotes:

Indeed, the job of copyright czar was created as part of yet another industry-approved intellectual-property law that ratchets up enforcement and strengthens copyright protection despite any real evidence that such measures are necessary, let alone desirable. . . .

Remix is about more than good music. It’s about our fundamental democratic right to self-expression. . . .

It’s worth remembering that, despite the alarmist claims of the content industry, copyright was not created to prop up giant media companies or pad the trust funds of celebrities’ heirs. The Founding Fathers were wary of an overzealous copyright policy because they understood what Congress has long since forgotten: that there are significant economic and social costs to granting “too much” copyright. . . .

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Silly Copyright Lawsuits

So Elaine Scott, author of Stocks and Bonds, Profits and Losses, has sued online publishing site Scribd. And it’s really, really silly.

What’s Scribd? I think of it as a simple, browser-based pdf of sorts. People use it to share books or documents in a simple format that’s easy to read on-screen or to print off. E.g., Cheryl Ball uses it for her CV, which is what inspired me to use it for our new-teacher orientation page this year.

Apparently, someone uploaded Scott’s entire book to Scribd without asking. She found it and got mad, and Scribd took it down, just like they always do when a copyright owner complains. But Scott maintains that “Scribd didn’t do enough to protect her copyright in the first place” (via WSJ blog). Scribd probably doesn’t have much to worry about here; other cases have shown that service providers aren’t responsible for the copyright violations of their users. (If I remember right, the Grokster case was an exception–Grokster lost because it was shown that their marketing had specifically encouraged people to use the site in illegal ways, and their internal documents showed that they wanted/expected people to trade protected mp3s.)

In fact, Scribd has an ever-growing technological filter in place to keep these kinds of things happening more than once. It’s like if Paramount sent YouTube a notice saying, “Some jerk is showing complete episodes of Star Trek: Voyager on your servers. Take them the heck down,” and YouTube responded by taking them down and by having technology that screens future uploads that also show more Voyager than they’re supposed to. (I suppose you could have a computer do a voice-to-text recognition thing that searches for Harry Kim whining about the structural integrity of the ship or for Seven-of-Nine whining about not feeling human enough.)

But–and this is where things get silly–Scott doesn’t want Scribd to use this filter, because they have to store certain aspects of her book on their server, which she sees as violating copyright. In other words, “Scott claimed that Scribd ‘shamelessly profits’ from stolen works and ‘built a technology that’s broken barriers to copyright infringement on a global scale'” (via CNET news).

Folks like Cory Doctorow and Tarleton Gillespie have pointed out the obvious problem when people get all huffy about every single copy in digital spaces: computers are designed to copy information. It’s what they do. And that’s how the web functions, too: information stored on a server is accessed (read: copied to your computer) and turned into a visual form by your browser. Everything you read online is being copied. It’s completely illogical to start claiming that every act of access and archiving is a breach of copyright; following that “logic,” we’d end up unable to access information at all.

One caveat: this does bear similarities (as this morning’s WSJ article pointed out) to the case of high school students in Northern Virginia who sued for storing their intellectual property (their essays written for class) on the turnitin servers. I think those students were right to protest that, but I see it as different than this Scribd case. The high school students’ work was being completely stored on the company servers, against their will, for the purpose of bettering turnitin’s database and thus increasing the company’s profit. Scribd’s server doesn’t keep an entire copy of Scott’s book–only some sort of digital fingerprint–and it’s there to protect Scott’s work, not to use it to build a master database of plagiarism detection.

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