Respecting Culture?

John Degen writes, “I think intellectual property is an economic model based on a constant request for respect”. Elsewhere he writes, “My personal opinion . . . boils down to this . . . respect the text.” I have seen this elsewhere. Usually this argument treats respect and payment as interchangeable, conflating a thing’s worth with what is paid for it1. But taken seriously, I see a more fundamental conflict about authority.

Degen apparently sees a text as a stable object with a fixed meaning. It deserves respect because it is the product of the sweat and inspiration of the author. It should be taken as it is, or not at all. Because it is the product of the author’s labor, it is proprietary. Copyright, I believe John claims, should recognize this by granting the author exclusive control over her work.

The understanding I have just described is fundamentally flawed. Texts do not have fixed meanings. They are always interpreted. This is not simply my opinion; it is the conclusion of decades of research in communication and culture studies. In a living culture, interpretations vary between people and they change over time. The Stars and Stripes may mean one thing to an American, another to someone else. The meaning of Mao’s Little Red Book is unlikely to be the same for a Canadian today as for a Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. The Teletubby with the handbag is gay for some people, but merely purple for others.

Interpretation

Texts do not have “correct” interpretations. You could say the author’s understanding is the right one, or you could argue for a particular analysis, or for the common understanding, and so on. Disputes over the “real” meaning of a text are actually attempts to establish a particular interpretation as dominant.

Interpretation is not a passive activity. Nor, oftentimes, is it a solitary one. Experiencing a text is work. It is a creative activity. Many people have had the experience of reading a book, then watching the movie and finding that the characters don’t look the way they imagined them. That act of visualization is a creative act. It is like the creativity of the author who experiences and interprets the world when she puts pen to paper2.

This does not diminish authorship. But it does place it on a continuum. The author of a text is usually the greatest contributor to its meaning. The interpretation of the audience is guided by the text itself – though not determined by it. (Similarly, the author is not free to express the text in just any way, but must take into account cultural conventions and the expectations, resources, and demands of the audience.) Collectively, however, the contribution of the audience can sometimes exceed that of the author.

Authority

Degen privileges the intention of the author. It seems that for him there is a correct interpretation, which he argues should be respected. Copyright, then, is a legal assertion of authority. The author is in the position of a priest of the middle ages: a conduit to something higher who preaches to the congregation in a language they do not fully understand. But this is no longer how we see culture. We do not treat it as an authority held at arms length. We bring it into our homes and our lives. What we express for our culture is not respect. It is passion.

I see the pursuit of copyright control (as distinct from copyright income) partly as a romantic attempt to recapture the authority of an era (largely imagined) when The Text was a distant object of veneration. The argument for respect ultimately leads to an attempt to dispossess all of us of our ability to engage and participate in our culture. I am afraid this may be invisible to Mr Degen and others like him. They do not see the multiplicity of meanings, nor the passion of the audience. In a tragic unintentional way, they do not respect them.

Notes

1 Degen appears to mix up worth and money himself when he suggests a “request for respect” is the foundation of intellectual property as an economic model.

2 Degen is a fiction writer. It strikes me that his argument sells his own craft short: one of the great benefits of literature compared to film and television is the scope it leaves for the reader to fill in the blanks with his imagination.

2008-06-29

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