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March 25, 2007

Interview with Jonathan Lethem [10:19 am]

The author of the Ecstasy of Influence: Writing in the free world

“You Don’t Love Me Yet” is about low-rent indie musicians with day jobs. Musicians like that often have little or no label support behind them and find themselves on a perpetual tour wagon, earning most of their cash through selling T-shirts — that is, selling the byproducts of their lovely songs. When I jump on my pro-copyright horse, I have to say these musicians may be wrecking their personal relationships by touring all the time, and then when they enter their elderly years, which for an indie band may be their 30s…

Yes, yes, they have no intellectual property to help them out in the old age home. The first thing I want to say is that it’s entirely a fiction of what I’ll call, for the sake of this argument, the opposition — corporate, copyright absolutists — that to question the present privatization craze in any way is to vote for some anarchic abolition of copyright.

I make my living by licensing my copyright. Everything I’ve tried to say, in the Harper’s essay and elsewhere, is that there is an enormous middle ground. It becomes one of those issues like, “If you don’t favor wiretapping in the U.S., you must be for the terrorists.” What I’m seeking to explore is that incredibly fertile middle ground where people control some rights and gain meaningful benefits from those controls, and yet contribute to a healthy public domain and systematically relinquish, or have relinquished for them, meaningless controls on culture that impoverish the public domain.

Having said that, there’s no simple description. There’s an enormously intricate series of judgments, given technological variations and the differences between different mediums. There’s no simple standard to apply. It’s a matter of understanding the needs of a healthy public domain and a healthy creative incentive in every field in deep and intricate specifics.

But I will say this: Problems of artists, musicians, writers, anyone getting paid for doing their most free and creative and independent kind of work, are not new ones. The present realm of corporate-instigated maximization of the intellectual property concept doesn’t seem to have kept indie bands from touring.

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