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Freedom of Expression has a Price

From Berkley’s excellent China Digital News, I find Li Yong Yan’s excellent article about the inconsistencies of mainland China’s censorship:

The Internet is supposed to be borderless and limitless in the exchange of information and ideas. But using sophisticated fire walls from capitalist Cisco and other vendors, China blocks all those overseas Chinese websites that are deemed un-communist, too democratic and critical. The “access denied” message will display whenever a surfer types such key words as June 4, Fa Lun Gong. Key in “democracy” and “freedom” on a Chinese search engine and the results will flash a headline, “Bush is raping Iraqi public opinion by pushing for so-called ‘Democracy and Freedom’.”

While we shouldn’t minimize China’s repression, we need to recognize that different societies and cultures have different controls. For example, Christian Ahlert was able to convince an Internet Service Provider to take down public domain writings by John Stuart Mill by (falsely) claiming that the site owner did not permission to post it. It would be naive to pretend that Western cultures don’t also thwart free expression by other means (usually by assertion of copyright).

One problem mentioned by the article is compliance. Social controls are porous in China (as they are in USA). A half-intelligent surfer can use proxy servers to evade the firewall, and many individuals in USA can download mp3’s or videos using p2p networks. When social and legal constraints or costs are too strong to begin with, inevitably an “underground market” emerges to provide alternative methods for accessing the content. When individuals start relying on these alternative illicit channels, then not only do we starve the production of new kinds of content, the respect for the rule of law is also threatened.

Do the benefits of expanding access to closed/proprietary content outweigh the undermining of a legal system’s legitimacy? If people make pirated copies of MS Office, they are creating additional people/companies who view MS Office as the only proper way of doing business. If it truly were impossible to overcome China’s firewalls, then the stakes of censorship would become much higher, the tensions more dramatic, the counterreaction more severe.

Once, at SXSW I had a brief conversation with Cory Doctorow about piracy and open source. We both agreed that RIAA’s lawsuits and MPAA’s broadcast flag would kill their industries, but we proposed two different solutions. Doctorow (and the EFF by implication) advocated a loosening of social and legal controls over piracy, while I expressed limited support for copyright enforcement. Why? Being doing so would make the true cost of ownership more transparent to users/consumers. If people in Ukraine had to pay $500 for MS Office licenses or $15 for Britney Spears CD’s and if there were no means of circumvention, then demand for these products would disappear (although economies of scale might drive their prices down). If that happened, local products and culture might enjoy a resurgence in support and popularity in places like Ukraine. If you embrace rigorous enforcement of property rights, at some point it conflicts with the desire to support and promote free expression.

My solution is better education for artists and content creators before signing off rights to big media. Caveat: while my advocacy of better defined rights for artists may sound good, in fact, I have made hardly a dime off content I have produced. Instead, I make a living by merrily slaving away in an industry unrelated to artistic expression, a compromise I have learned to live with. To say that artists should never cede ownership rights of content to big media is one thing; but to offer no viable alternative for artists to finance production of creative content is essentially to deny to artists the right to gain any benefits from their creative effort (other than purely philosophical satisfaction). The question then becomes: which kind of society produces more creative content: a society where artists can sell rights to their content (and have supplemental income) or a society where everything is essentially tossed into the public domain?

We may knock Hollywood for controlling distribution and enforcing property rights, but a quick comparison between the US and Russia in the fifties (for example) reveals that our capitalistic society produced overwhelmingly more films, novels, records and other creative content than Russia. This disparity can partly be explained by political repression, but documentaries like East Side Story, reveal that the dearth of musicals in Eastern bloc countries had less to do with political repression than the fact that the film industry of Eastern bloc countries was woefully underfunded. East Side Story film clip

Perhaps the “cultural starvation” in communist countries had the ironic result of making citizens more receptive to outside cultures. Albanians under the brutal regime of Enver Hoxha, for example, could still see Italian television, whose backdrops of wealth and mass consumption offered more tantalizing propaganda about glorious capitalism than those abiding by formulas for socialist realism.

Ironically, Hollywood may be more adept at producing anti-capitalistic propaganda than communist societies are. Steven Spielburg’s critique of materialism and consumerism in Jurassic Park is one example. (It cost a lot of money–and made a lot of money–to show the folly of businesses that overzealously exploit a tourist attraction). The film Titanic not only was a huge moneymaker, but it also contained insightful social messages. Chinese president Jiang Zemin said this about this film:

Here is this movie called Titanic. It cost US$250 million to make, and has cleared $1 billion in revenues by now. Call it venture investment…The movie gives a vivid and thorough portrait of the relationships between the wealthy and the poor, between money and love and human reactions in a crisis… I am not raving about capitalist products, but we should learn more about them as well about ourselves, so that we can always triumph. Don’t fool ourselves that we are the only ones who know how to work on people’s brains.”

Odd as it seems, Zemin’s reading of the film is perfectly valid. By humanizing class struggle without resorting to the usual socialist cliches, the film delivers messages more compelling than anything dreamed up by the Communist Party. Perhaps when talking about piracy, Marxist analysis is not so far-fetched; we must not overlook the means (or rules) of production when debating questions about creative content.

Here are the type of criteria that copyright reformists use for arguing about solutions: 1) does the current system protect holders of copyright? 2)is the punishment for copyright infringement proportional to the offense?, 3)are there reasonable limits to copyright control? and 4)can content be open and accessible while still allowing copyright owners to profit?

These are all interesting and important questions. But a utilitarian standard might also be useful. Which type of social controls result in the greatest number and variety of creative content? I am not talking about consumer access, nor am I talking about ensuring adequate profits for artists. Quite frankly I don’t care. What then fuels the production of creative content? Capitalist incentives, or self-expression motives? Some kinds of content would cease to be produced if they were not so profitable (the big budget Hollywood blockbuster, for example), but
other works would still be produced regardless of potential profitability. Being able to self-publish novels that never will sell is simultaneously awful and liberating. Everyone becomes an amateur again; is that good? will that cause people to write fewer novels or more?

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Dan Green 6/24/2004, 3:46 pm

    An interesting post, but I’m not sure that bypassing conventional publication makes one an “amateur.” Was Emily Dickinson an amateur because she didn’t publish her poems?

  • someone 7/5/2004, 8:12 pm

    if thats true, then she was an amateur. that’s what an amateur is. it doesn’t mean she was not talented, but just not professional, ie making a living off of it.

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