Digital Youth With Disabilities: An Interview with Meryl Alper (Part Three)

 

You note that the kinds of warnings and labels that describe “age appropriate” media are problematic when talking about children with disabilities. Why? What are some of the ways that parents of children with disabilities are making choices about what kinds of media content to bring into their homes?

This question speaks to a larger pressure that parents in the U.S. are under for their children to keep up or be left behind. Paradoxically, contemporary middle class U.S. parents generally want their children not to grow up too quickly, yet they are increasingly being expected to be develop advanced literacy and math skills as a shield against an uncertain job market. Any discussion of what media is “age appropriate” for a child has to take into account the content of that media, the social context around their media use (e.g. peer group, home life), and also everything else about that child—their gender, race, ethnicity, class, language background, and range of abilities and disabilities.

For example, in one family I spent time with, the mother and father were artists and their 3-year-old son with cerebral palsy was a jazz music aficionado who used his iPad both for augmentative and alternative communication and also as a jukebox through iTunes. And in another family, a 13-year-old autistic boy liked to spend his free time on websites like PBSKids.com that were designed with a preschool audience in mind. These interests are outside the norm of that which is “age appropriate,” but they are appropriate for these children.

It is also important to note that in both of these families, parents were not alone in making choices about their child’s media use; the children weighed in as well. Though this sort of dialogue and negotiation process might look different in these families (particularly as neither child regularly communicated through oral speech), it is important for parents of children of all abilities to keep in mind their child’s perspective and agency.

You raise some key concerns about the ways that many of the platforms — YouTube for example — that support the grassroots production and sharing of media may not be able to fully support the needs of people with disabilities. What are the implications of this finding for those of us who care about participatory culture and learning?

I’ll dive right into the example of YouTube, as I think it is the main battleground right now over which individuals or what entities are responsible for making the internet an accessible and participatory space for cultural engagement and learning. YouTube’s automatic captioning feature is notoriously poor. It also offers no way for Deaf and hard-of-hearing YouTube users to search exclusively for videos with proper captioning. There have been some policy decisions that push online video in a more accessible direction, but there are many hurdles.

The U.S. Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act has mandated that all TV shows broadcast on television and then shown on the internet must have captioning (e.g. series that re-air on Hulu or Amazon Prime). However, the Act did not include programming that is exclusively distributed via the internet (e.g. user generated videos, online videos made by news organizations that never air on broadcast TV). These create huge captioning gaps on the internet. Different volunteer-driven crowdsourcing technologies such as Amara.org support DIY captioning and video descriptions at little or no cost to content creators and distributors (Ellcessor, 2012).DIY captioning sites though have been met with resistance from the entertainment and news industries, claiming that such practices violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The main issue here is whether or not lack of online captioning options violates citizens’ rights to equally access public spaces, including the internet.

In terms of young people’s learning, there are a number of ramifications for these barriers to YouTube accessibility. First, closed captioning doesn’t just benefit Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. It also has demonstrated benefits in formal and informal learning settings, for example, for beginning readers (Linebarger, Piotrowski, & Greenwood, 2010). Second, beyond a U.S. context, closed captioning can also help make YouTube programming accessible in multiple languages, seeing as most views come from outside of the U.S. Also, with poor online captioning, YouTube also sends an implicit signal that it is not a space “for” Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Lastly, adolescents and teenagers with disabilities should have the opportunity to be able to fit in with their peers and participate in the same online communities, especially those as fertile for grassroots production and sharing as YouTube.

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  She studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication.  Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney.  She can be found on Twitter @merylalper and online at merylalper.com

 

Digital Youth with Disabilities: An Interview with Meryl Alper (Part Two)

 

You hint here that our perceptions of what kinds of media are appropriate for youth with disabilities tends to prioritize educational and assistive technologies over the use of new media for recreational and social purposes. What are some of the implications of these biases?

I get frustrated when talk of children with disabilities and technology drifts into a common trope in which disability is imagined as a problem that needs solving, and technology (in school and therapeutic settings) provides the solution. One implication is that it perpetuates the idea of children with disabilities as “poster children” (Longmore, 2013), defined primarily by their medical needs and deserving of charity. Often—as one of my dissertation committee members, Beth Haller, has written—technology or technologists (usually able-bodied) are emphasized in the popular press for the good they do for people with disabilities. There is far less emphasis on the ways in which individuals with disabilities appropriate and adapt technology, and are active consumers, creators, and circulators of media. For example, Bess Williamson has pointed out ways in which individuals with disabilities were pioneers of maker culture in the post-WWII era.

Another is that digital media researchers are missing opportunities to study and learn from youth with disabilities. For example, there is exciting work being done by a fellow Ph.D. student, Kate Ringland at UC Irvine, on parent and youth participation in a Minecraft server called Autcraft, which is a dedicated space for individuals on the autism spectrum. There is a lot to be learned in Autcraft not just about autism, but also with respect to the methods of digital ethnography and the study of social norms and reciprocity.

Lastly, it is also important to understand the ways in which youth with disabilities figure into what we already know about how kids are “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out” (or the ways in which they are being excluded) so that they too are able to reap the benefits of a more participatory culture. Most high-tech educational and assistive devices are beyond the financial means of many families without additional financial support from school districts or health insurance. Parents express feeling like the professionals that work with their children lack an understanding of their family media habits (Nally, Houlton, & Ralph, 2000). Without understanding the media ecologies of youth with disabilities more fully, and their use of everyday tools like YouTube or Snapchat, the well-intentioned introduction of these technologies across the settings where children learn may not be as effective.

 

You spend a large chunk of the book dissecting and critiquing the concept of “screen time.” Why has this been such a problematic way to formulate policies shaping media use within family life? Why is this concept especially inappropriate for thinking about media consumption/participation by youth with disabilities?

For those unfamiliar, over past 15 years, the phrase “screen time” has come to signify how much time children spend with the growing array of screen-based media and technology. It entered the popular vernacular in 2001, as part of a policy statement issued by American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the leading professional group for pediatricians in the U.S. While child development experts (especially psychologists) have weighed in on children’s media use since days of radio, in the 1970s, pediatricians and the AAP began a more concerted effort to make public statements on children and media. In its current incarnation, the AAP’s policy statement on children and media specifically targets “entertainment screen media” (which is still a pretty sweeping category).

The AAP statements make the relationship between media and children seem far more clear and simple than the research actually indicates. In the book chapter, I detail a few ways in which screen time is generally a flawed concept: its oversimplification of the notion of family “time”; its negative characterization of “entertainment screen media” content as something to be avoided; its unproved hypothesis that screen time directly displaces other activities children might otherwise be doing (like homework or playing outside); and its lumping together of all screen-based communication technologies even though they have very different capabilities. I also discuss each of these critiques in relation to children with disabilities.

There also seemed to be an aspect of screen time that was potentially harmful to children with disabilities and their families. I detail in the chapter how screen time presumes a child whose diet and exercise, sleep, and attention would be “normal” were it not for screen media. This standard is implicitly projected as the ideal media-using child and essentially “others” children with disabilities. Thus, screen time is inherently “ableist,” a worldview in which disability is understood as aberrant—something for statisticians to “control for” in their data—and not a natural human difference.

I have an example from my dissertation fieldwork of how screen time can perpetuate ableism in everyday life. I conducted an interview with a mom, Perri, whose preschool-age son, Cory (both pseudonyms), has a developmental disability that impairs his ability to produce embodied oral speech. Cory primarily “talks” using an iPad with an app called Proloquo2Go. The system provides him with text-to-speech features and tools for selecting words, symbols, and images to communicate his thoughts. Perri told me that she was “of course” worried about the negative impact of “screen time,” but “as a special needs parent, you have to block out the rest of the world.” Perri felt guilty for sometimes falling on the wrong side of screen time guidelines; for example, the only thing that helped Cory sit still during difficult 45-minute daily medical treatments was watching a DVD.

She detailed a social situation that required her to shut out dominant cultural messages about screen time. When her and Cory go to the playground, she said, she feels that other parents are judging her. They must be thinking, Perri told me, “‘Look at that parent, giving that child an iPad.’” She assumed that other parents associated letting a child use an iPad on a playground as a poor parenting move. To be fair, from the vantage point of the other parents, they might not know what else Cory could possibly be using the iPad for besides recreation. He does not visibly appear to have a disability from the opposite end of the playground—he is not in a wheelchair, he can walk, and he has a lot of energy. However, the situation for Perri and Cory would be much improved by greater societal awareness about how screen media serves different purposes in the lives of diverse families. Perri should not have to “block out the rest of the world”—those on the opposite ends of the playground should be less quick to judge her and her son. A serious dialogue about screen time and disability is but one starting point to create a more enabling and supportive environment for Perri and her son.

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  She studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication.  Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney.  She can be found on Twitter @merylalper and online at merylalper.com

 

 

Digital Youth with Disabilities: An Interview with Meryl Alper (Part One)

Meryl Alper’s new book, Digital Youth with Disabilities, releases shortly via the MacArthur Foundation’s distinguished series of reports on Digital Media and Learning, published by MIT Press. Alper is currently one of my PhD Candidates at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, where she is writing a dissertation under my supervision sharing what she’s learned through interviews and observations of the families of youth in Los Angeles who use adaptive technologies to help them deal with speech disabilities.

Alpert came to me a few years ago having already had a distinguished career working in and around children’s media, including having worked with the Sesame Workshop’s Education and Research Department where she had done field work investigating the potential for developing an animated series focused on media literacy, with Northwestern University’s Children’s Digital Media Center where she worked directly with Barbara O’Keefe (a legend in the space of children’s media) and most recently, with the research division of Nick Jr. where again she did work with preschool aged children.

Since coming to USC, she has been part of a team at the Annenberg Innovation Lab which developed a white paper in collaboration with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, T is For Transmedia, which I have featured here before. She has increasingly been focusing her attention onto the roles new media play as adaptive and assistive technologies for families who are living with disabilities. Her work, as you will see, emphasizes the social contexts within which these technologies are situated, a topic she writes about with enormous nuance and empathy; she explores the processes by which youth and their families develop voice and assert control over their lives, while negotiating with powerful institutions, especially schools but also the medical establishment, over access to and control over these technological resources.

I am so proud of what Alper has accomplished during her time at USC and know that she is going to become an outstanding professional as she enters the academic job market this year. I wanted to use this post to call attention to her book.

You begin the book with some of the ways that the concept of disability has been rethought through critical/feminist disability studies. To what degree have these insights been translated into terms that can be understood by educators, policy-makers, and parents? Is there a gap here between theory and practice?

Before diving in, I’ll give a brief overview of some of the key intersections between disability studies and critical studies, before discussing how these theoretical developments translate to the U.S. context of education and learning.

Disability is a constantly evolving concept, and my book partially captures it at one particular moment in history. It is a dimension of human difference, while also containing a multitude of differences. For example, while some disabilities are more visible and permanent (e.g. Down syndrome, paralysis), other conditions are less immediately apparent and fluctuate in severity more frequently (e.g. chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivities).

Two broad ways of thinking about disability initially grew out of the field of disability studies: a medical model of disability, in which disability is understood as undesirable, individualized, and defined by deficit; and a social model, which distinguishes between impairment (as bodily difference) and disability (as the social and structural environment that disables different bodies).

A critical approach to disability studies challenges both models. While the medical model offers needed medical solutions for pain, discomfort, and fatigue, political and social transformations are also needed to make the world more accessible and safe for individuals with disabilities, their families, and caregivers. The social model does not account for the ways that disability is experienced on an individual level, the ways that impairment and disability mutually shape one another, and how these social constructions shift depending on time and place.

Critical feminist/queer disability studies scholars (including Robert McRuer, Alison Kafer, and David Serlin) offer ways of looking at disability as political that question overlapping status quos of power and privilege. It is important to note that people with disabilities are the largest minoritized group in the U.S.—19% of the population according to the U.S. Census. Critical disability studies is engaged with other disciplinary traditions that also challenge systems and structures of oppression, such as feminist studies, queer studies, ethnicity and race studies, and indigenous studies. To study any form of institutionalized discrimination in 2014 necessitates disentangling interactions between class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality, language, age, and especially disability.

The insights of critical disability studies are far from fully incorporated into educational practice and policy in the U.S. On a macro level, the U.S. education system is centered on the “normal” student, sorting and measuring ability through the big business of standardized testing. The system is designed to prepare students to make a “productive” contribution to society. However, this model of productivity is based on narrow ideas about what it means to contribute, primarily by adding economic value to the workforce. The ideal graduate of the U.S. educational system is nearly always able-bodied and able-minded. Critical disability scholars push back against a society that seeks to cure, rehabilitate, or make disability go away, and seeks alternative models of community and coalition building.

Another area where a critical disability studies intervention is needed is in addressing disparity among youth with disabilities. Black males are overrepresented in the high-incidence disability categories of intellectual disability, emotional disturbance, and learning disabilities (Aud et al., 2013; Ford, 2012). Though youth with disabilities comprise 13% of all U.S. students aged 3-21 (according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics), they make up 25% of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions, 23% of all students getting a school-related arrest, and 19% of expelled students (Lhamon & Samuels, 2014).

If any group has done the most to translate the insights of critical disability studies for parents, policy makers, and educators, it has been students and individuals with disabilities (who may also be parents, policy makers, and educators themselves). Unlike most people in the field of disability studies, I do not currently identify as an individual with a disability, and I am not the parent, sibling, or partner of someone with a disability. I have to work very hard to see things from a point of view that I cannot fully understand. I personally look towards organizations such as the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and disability rights activists such as Lydia Brown for their leadership in bridging theory and practice.

 

You also were one of the co-authors of T is for Transmedia, which advocated for transmedia play and learning. In what ways would the multimodality associated with transmedia enhance or detract from the media experiences of youth with disabilities?

A small but growing body of research suggests that emerging readers and writers with physical, cognitive, and intellectual disabilities may benefit from expanded opportunities to draw on their experiences with popular culture and leverage their multimodal text-making abilities (Flewitt, Kucirkova, & Messer, 2014; Peppler & Warschauer, 2012). However, the benefits or drawbacks of transmedia play for any one child depends not only on their specific set of abilities and disabilities, but—taking a more ecological approach to human development—also the social, cultural, and political context that underpins the child’s learning experiences in and out of the classroom.

I’ll provide an example from my dissertation research that illustrates these possibilities and limitations. Kevin is a non-speaking, 13-year-old mixed-race autistic boy from a lower-middle income family. While he is unable to articulate his grasp of the English language through embodied oral speech or handwriting, his mother, Rebecca, indicated that he demonstrated strength in print literacy and an array of new literacies including technological fluency and visual literacy.

She drew heavily on instances of her son’s media use to talk about his verbal abilities. For example, Rebecca told me that Kevin used the letter tile game Bananagrams to spell “‘Indiana Jones’ before he could spell his own name.” The Harry Potter DVD menu in particular provided rich seed material. Said Rebecca, “He would spell ‘prologue.’ Prologue was his word. Prologue, prologue, prologue. Then he would spell ‘quidditch pitch.’ He would spell ‘Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour.’”

Kevin’s wordplay with the language of DVD menus provided an opportunity for learning. However, clinicians, behavioral therapists, and sometimes parents tend to pathologize repeated viewing of movie credits by autistic youth (Liss, Saulnier, Fein, & Kinsbourne, 2006). Though Rebecca described Kevin’s transmedia play as a positive pathway to spelling, certain kinds of play by disabled children often gets promoted or prevented depending on the various institutions in which their learning is embedded (Goodley & Runswick-Cole, 2010).

 

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  She studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication.  Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney.  She can be found on Twitter @merylalper and online at merylalper.com

Scott McCloud Reimagines The Future of Comics

As part of my role as the Chief Advisor to the Annenberg Innovation Lab, I get to run a series of events we like to call, Geek Speaks, which are designed to bring smart conversations about the current state of popular culture to USC’s campus. I’ve joked that these events function as “geek bait” — that is, the lab has many opportunities for students who are designers, hackers, and entrepreneur to work on projects together, and we use these events, in part, to publicize the Lab to the larger campus community.  In the past, for example, we’ve had conversations with Brian David Johnson and Cory Doctorow on “The Uses and Abuses of Science Fiction” and we’ve hosted two panels showcasing “The Women Who Create Television.” In the Spring, we are going to be hosting a day long celebration of Cyberpunk and Its Legacy in cooperation with The USC Visions and Voices Program, an event I have been developing with Howard Rodman and Scott Fischer.

A few weeks ago, we hosted a really fun evening focused on “The Future of Comics.” The event started with my conversation with Scott McCloud, the author of Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, Making Comics, The Complete Zot, and the forthcoming graphic novel, The Sculptor. McCloud and I are old friends: I’ve hosted him many times at MIT, not to mention having frequent lunches at San Diego Comic-Con, with Scott and his family, but this was the first time I had brought him to USC. Given the theme, I used the exchange as a chance to drill down on some of the predictions or arguments he made about potential futures for his medium in Reinventing Comics, which came out in 2000. Some claimed he was a cyberutopian, which was at least partially true, but many (though not all) of the arguments he made there have at least partially been realized, including his strong belief that the growth of web comics might help to diversify who read and created comics and what kinds of comics would be produced.

Dan Carino, a comics journalist who has a USC affiliation, drew this picture conveying something of the tone of our exchange.

 

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Geek Speaks: The Future of Comics (Part I) from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

The second panel, organized and moderated by Geoff Long, the head technologist at the Lab, featured a range of contemporary comics creators from the Los Angeles area, sharing their own perspectives about the current state and future directions of comics as a medium. The speakers included Dan Burwen(Cognito Comics), Joe LeFavi (Quixotic Transmedia),  Diana Williams(Lucasfilm) Hank Kanalz (DC Entertainment) and Patrick Chappatte (International New York Times).

Geek Speaks: The Future of Comics (Part II) from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

 

This discussion generated much interest via Twitter when we announced it. We had booked all of the seats for the event in under 24 hours and many wrote to say they wished they could be there. Today, I am happy to be able to share with you videos of the two sessions. Please help me spread the word to anyone you know who is invested in comics.

“I am Handmade”: Crafting in the Age of Computers

The following piece is contributed by Samantha Close, one of my PhD Candidates in USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She shares here some work she has been doing about crafting in a networked culture, work which has so far yielded a very compelling short documentary about the people who make the things we like to buy on Etsy, and which she believes will become the focus of her dissertation.

“I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers”  Samantha Close I wasn’t prepared to fall in love with crafting. It was a brisk January in Boston, 2013, and I was at the Modern Language Association annual conference engaged in the serious business of academic talk about comics. But in the breezeway between the official conference hotel and the convention center, where more or less every academic in the United States (and beyond) who does work related to literature was presenting papers, lay the most fortunate Barnes and Nobles bookstore in the world. For the occasion, the store had moved everything related to classic and contemporary highbrow literature to front and center.

As a student of popular culture who had presented on Spider-Man adaptations the year previous, I sighed a bit at the bookstore’s idea of what academics would find interesting. Still, books are books. And sometimes, books are next to knitting magazines featuring fan-written patterns from which to knit items that Jane Austen’s characters might have worn at various points in her novels. As a fan of Jane Austen in general (Pride and Prejudice in specific) and an enthusiastic cosplayer, I was delighted. That I had no idea how to knit was a minor, insignificant detail.

A year and a half (and two shawls, three hats, and innumerable attempts at socks) later, my dissertation research has centered itself around transformations in the communities, economies, and meanings of creative work, with artists and crafters who sell their work on Etsy as my major case study. I made the documentary short “I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers” as part of that research.  Throughout the film I’m exploring what it means to be handmade.

For some, it’s all about their hands and their materials. Physically crafting objects tends to involve repetitive motion and immersion in the feel of things, the flow. Others delight in tinkering, working out what merino fiber, silver poly clay, and broken metal sextants can become with some patient trial and error.

In the larger cultural context, I’d argue there’s more similarity than first meets the eye between spinners meeting up in a New York mall food court comparing fibers, techniques for making thread, spindles, and wheels, and athletes converging on the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course comparing training regimens, costumes, course-building techniques, and methods to get through Cannonball Alley. They’re both examples of embodied participatory culture.

However, as regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware, access to the materials of participatory culture is often contested. Many of the crafters and artists I spoke with are fans, who create their own patterns, jokes, items, and designs by riffing on and re-mixing popular culture. Fans have gradually won acceptance for this kind of work as legitimately creative and share-able, but the economic systems for exchanging fan crafts are still extremely murky. As Francesca Coppa points out, “In the past few years, the nature of the arguments I have been having as a fandom advocate has changed: In the past, I found myself arguing for the legitimacy of our works; now, I find myself arguing against their exploitation.”

Fans—and crafters more generally—should have the right to keep their work within the gift economy as well as the right to benefit economically from their work if they so choose, without ludicrously high licensing fees. The film’s larger narrative tracks several crafters who do seek to turn their passions into full-time jobs. This is harder than it sounds, and winning the fair use battle isn’t even the half of it.

When what you love to do, you also ought to do, and ought to do for eight-plus hours a day, your body and mind can both rebel. It’s a dilemma that I’m intimately familiar with as an academic. Particularly as one who broke down and bought a ridiculously expensive ergonomic chair set-up when the simple act of sitting at my desk computer to edit this film became overwhelmingly painful. But I’m still glad I made the film. Ultimately, this is the larger meaning of what it is to be “handmade.”

People need different balances of work, play, and overlaps there-between, and we’re going to struggle to find them. We can and should build structures and communities of support, places where people can be real about the difficulties they’re facing and find some answers, and we must respect people who have found the amount and arena of struggle that works for them. You can’t make a silver origami cat without the kiln.

For those local to Southern California, “I Am Handmade” will screen at the CSU Long Beach Human Cinema Film Festival on Thursday, November 13. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Samantha Close.

Samantha Close is a doctoral student in Communication at the University of Southern California.  Her research interests include fan studies, critical theory, theory-practice, new media, gender, and race. She focuses particularly on amateur media production and transforming models of creative industries and capitalism.  Her writing has recently appeared in the Sampling Media anthology published by Oxford University Press.  She also likes cats and knits.  A lot.

Playing the Piracy Card: An Interview with Aram Sinnreich (Part Three)

You write in the book about the “anti-piracy agenda.” What kinds of policies have emerged from the music industry’s anti-piracy efforts and what do you see as their “collateral damage”?

I’m glad you asked, because this is really the point that the book aims to make. Once we accept that the well-worn story of Napster-killed-the-music-industry is at best debatable and most likely pure bunk, we can take a closer look at the laws and policies that have been developed in the name of combating “piracy” and evaluate their broader social and economic impact, which is significant.

The general trend for copyright laws, treaties and policies over the years has been towards expansion: a broader range of cultural expression has been covered, for a wider set of uses, for longer periods of time, with harsher penalties for infringement. In the interest of pursuing infringers, American government offices ranging from the DOJ to the Department of Homeland Security to new, specialized ones like the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (a/k/a the Copyright Czar) are being called upon to police and enforce infringement on behalf of private rights holders. And corporations ranging from ISPs to email providers to social media platforms are being asked to track their users’ behaviors and share information about infringing communications and about infringers themselves with one another and with government offices. Congress has even tried, at least twice in the last few years, to pass laws giving the federal government the ability to flip an internet “kill switch,” pulling the plug on every single user, in response to a vague list of “cybersecurity threats,” which definitively include IP infringement.

Some of these laws and treaties have been ratified, others are in progress, and others have died on the vine. Together, they represent a well-planned, comprehensive wish list concocted by the music industry and its allies in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, purchased with literally billions of dollars in above-the-table lobbying and campaign finance contributions, to say nothing of other modes of inducement, such as the threat of economic devastation by the US Trade Representative against foreign sovereign states that resist participating in IP law “harmonization” via secretly-negotiated trade accords. This might sound like the plot of a lesser Alan J. Pakula paranoiafest from the ’70s, but thanks in part to whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, as well as the tireless efforts of public advocates at organizations like EFF and Public Knowledge, I can confidently present these claims as factual, and support it with a wealth of documentation (my book has 34 pages of endnotes, and I could easily have doubled that figure).

The “collateral damage” from this antipiracy agenda spills into nearly every facet of our society, from the marketplace to the political process to the public sphere. On the commercial level, market titans including the major labels have wielded IP laws like bludgeons to crack down on competitors and innovators, using the threat of costly litigation and costlier damage awards to coerce startups into agreements that consign them to permanent insolvency, or to shutter the few that resist. Criminals and unethical actors ranging from phishing scammers to patent trolls to “copyright monetization companies” like RightsCorp and BayTSP have exploited the laws’ contours and complexities to cheat and extort untallied billions of dollars from small businesses and blameless individuals, while music and film companies have sued hundreds of thousands of their own best customers. Our courts are clogged with baseless litigations, the marketplace is littered with the remains of once-promising commercial ventures, and hundreds of thousands of families have faced economic hardship above and beyond the privations caused by our sputtering economy.

Even worse, however, are the threats posed by these laws to democratic self-governance and civil liberties, both in the US and elsewhere around the world. Relatively tame copyright laws like the DMCA have already been exploited successfully to remove viral presidential campaign videos from YouTube, to quell dissent and silence criticism, and to limit citizens’ access to online newspapers and public forums. The new breed of copyright laws promoted by today’s piracy crusaders aim to upgrade these powers, compelling businesses to spy on citizens without a warrant and report on their behaviors to governments agencies, and giving both commercial and public institutions the legal power to disconnect individual users, surveil their communications, and take down entire internet domains based on unproven allegations of infringement, all without transparency, accountability or easy recourse to appeal for those affected.

I wrote the bulk of this book in 2012 and early 2013, before the earth-shattering revelations of government overreach exposed by Edward Snowden, but even at that point it was easy to see that such powers would inevitably be used at best carelessly and in all probability corruptly, and that once they were granted, it would be nearly impossible to revoke them. To me, Snowden’s leaks only confirm this suspicion, and should give us further pause before we bestow such legal powers on either governments or corporations, especially given that a) they clearly possess the technological capacity to exploit such powers to the fullest, and b) they lack the organizational rigor and/or political will to prevent such powers from being exploited maliciously and anti-democratically. In the final analysis, is it really worth taking such risks to ward off a phantasmagorical boogeyman, and ineffectually at that?

You offer a strong critique throughout the book on the music industry’s position. What are you advocating as alternatives to the current system?

This is, of course, the trillion-dollar question. In the book, I don’t conclude with a specific set of agenda items; instead, I discuss a range of different solutions and amendments to intellectual property law proposed by critics and scholars across the political spectrum, both inside and outside the government, in the US and elsewhere around the world. There are some great ideas out there, some of them radical and some merely ameliatory, and I was more interested in reflecting this diversity of opinion than in furthering my own.

But since you ask… At the very least, I would support the following agenda items:

- Shorter copyright terms. Currently copyright lasts for an author’s life plus 70 years – an order of magnitude longer than the 14-year term originally applied when the law was created. In a recently leaked draft of the secret TPP treaty, Mexico proposed that all signatories extend copyright to author’s life plus 100 years (I wonder where they got that idea?). Even our own Register of Copyrights, Maria Pallante, has suggested that we revert to life plus 50 years. I think the term should be even shorter, maybe in the range of 20-30 years; beyond that point, I believe it functions more to protect entrenched economic interests than to incentivize new creative production.

- A digital citizens bill of rights. We need to make sure that, IP infringement notwithstanding, all citizens can communicate privately and securely, that they have guaranteed access to communications networks and the public sphere, and that they can express their political opinions and share their cultural ideas freely and openly without fear of censorship or recrimination. Ron Wyden and Daryl Issa tried to pass a law like this called the OPEN Act a few years ago, and it went nowhere. More recently, Brazil successfully passed a law with some of these provisions, called the Marco Civil da Internet. Ironically enough, it was Snowden’s whistleblowing that gave the Brazilian government the momentum it needed to get the bill passed.

- Protection against copyright and patent trolls. In recent years, the number of US patent cases has skyrocketed, and last year over two-thirds of them were initiated by “trolls,” or companies whose only economic stake resides in their ability to litigate. This is widely agreed to be a serious problem (President Obama himself raised this as a key issue in his most recent State of the Union address), but thus far our legislators failed to pass the potentially effective Innovation Act of 2013, and the watered down TROL Act of 2014 has yet to be voted on in the House.

- A right to remix. Our musical cultures and industries have thrived for decades because we have a compulsory right to cover songs. Once a composition has been recorded, anyone is free to make their own version of it, paying a statutory rate to the rights holder for the privilege. It’s hard to imagine how much more impoverished our musical landscape would be if that hadn’t been the case – if you had to ask permission and negotiate with publishers and composers every time you wanted to record or perform one of their songs. Yet that’s exactly how it is today with sample-based music like hip-hop, mashups, EDM and techno; if you want to sample even a millisecond of a recording, you’re at the mercy of the rights holder (most likely, a major record label) and licenses are often priced high enough to make sure that only other major labels can foot the bill. This is not the result of any clear statute, but rather due to a couple of dicey court decisions over a decade ago. As others have argued, this not only effectively stopped the evolution of hip-hop in its tracks, eviscerating its politically subversive and culturally resistant potential, but has also helped to turn us into a nation of criminals, as each of us carries the capacity to cut, paste and redistribute audio around in our pockets. Thus, we need a statutory right to remix akin to the right to cover compositions, and it needs to be affordable enough so that innovative artists in emerging genres distributing their own music or working with a smaller label can afford to do so and stay on the right side of the law.

- Small claims court for IP infringement. Currently, the statutory maximum penalty for “willful” copyright infringement in the US is $150,000 per work, and litigation attorneys bill upwards of $500/hour. These high stakes mean that the system only works for those with deep pockets, like major labels and publishers. Meanwhile, according to the Copyright Office, the median cost to litigate a copyright suit with less than a million dollars at stake is $350,000. This hurts independent artists and small businesses, whether they’re plaintiffs or defendants. A small claims court with lower damages, shorter litigation cycles, simpler processes and no precedential power would allow everyday people to pursue their rights and interests without risking economic catastrophe.

- Reduced risks and penalties for noncommercial infringement, and reduced secondary liability. One of the major victories of the piracy crusaders has been to elevate noncommercial infringement to the level of a felony, potentially punishable by hundreds of thousands of dollars fines and jail time. Given that it’s nearly impossible to use the internet without committing some form of noncommercial infringement (ever forward an email or post a page to Facebook? Gotcha!), this is an absurd and potentially dangerous state of affairs. We need to reaffirm that there is a substantive difference between those who mass-produce bootleg movies and CDs for sale in retail shops and those who distribute free mixtapes to their friends (yes, I realize there’s a lot of gray area, but I’m trying to be brief). We also need to reverse the encroachment of “secondary liability,” a legal doctrine that holds someone accountable for infringement if they played a role in a third-party’s infringement, often tenuously. For instance, even though Congress tried and failed to pass an act making it illegal to “induce” a third party to infringe copyright in 2004, that didn’t stop the Supreme Court from using exactly that standard to find Grokster liable for the actions of its users in 2005, a precedent that was applied to Limewire in 2010 (full disclosure: I served as an expert witness for the defense in both cases). This vague standard, and other similar ones, create a dangerous “chilling effect” in which blameless parties choose not to undertake actions that are well with their rights for fear of guilt by association with a third party.

My full list could probably fill up an entire book on its own (hm, sounds like a worthwhile project, but I guess Bill Patry beat me to it), but for the sake of your readers, I’ll stop here.

Aram Sinnreich is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, in the Department of Journalism & Media Studies. His work focuses on the intersection of culture, law and technology, with an emphasis on emerging media and music. He is the author of two books, Mashed Up (2010), and The Piracy Crusade (2013), and has written for publications including the New York Times, Billboard and Wired. Prior to Rutgers, Sinnreich served as Director at media innovation lab OMD Ignition Factory, Managing Partner of media/tech consultancy Radar Research, Visiting Professor at NYU Steinhardt, and Senior Analyst at Jupiter Research. He is also a bassist and composer, and has played with groups and artists including progressive soul band Brave New Girl, dub-and-bass collective Dubistry, Agent 99, King Django, and Ari-Up, lead singer of the Slits. Sinnreich holds a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Southern California, and a master’s in Journalism from Columbia University.

Playing the Piracy Card: An Interview with Aram Sinnreich (Part Two)

You see the recording industry and radio as complexly intertwined institutions which follow somewhat different logics. Can you outline that relationship for us and explain why it is key for understanding the current copyright wars?

Radio networks and record labels both evolved as natural “frenemies” in the early 20th Century. This dynamic was partially due to the technological breakthroughs of pioneering inventors like Edison, Tesla and Marconi, but it was also shaped in large part by political and economic forces. For instance, until World War I, most radio transmissions in the US were peer-to-peer, with hundreds of thousands of individual hobbyists sharing their music and commentary freely with any who cared to listen. There was no such thing as a broadcaster or a receiver; every device was capable of both sending and receiving information. This only changed after the federal government began regulating radio in the 1920s, as part of a larger quid-pro-quo deal with commercial interests.

The larger point is, neither radio networks nor record labels were necessary given the affordances of the technologies they use; they developed in contradistinction to one another, and in response to larger social forces. Record labels evolved around a retail model, controlling the distribution of music through material channels, and radio evolved around an advertising model, monopolizing the right to distribute music through intangible channels. Record labels provided royalty-free content to fuel radio listenership, and radio provided free promotion for the goods that labels sold. There were tensions over the years (for instance, periodic “payola” scandals), but this system held for most of the 20th Century, and sustained itself through legal, technological and economic developments that reinforced the initial, largely arbitrary, distinctions between the two sectors.

Given this history, it’s easy to see why the Internet poses such a threat to this complex and delicate media ecology – by altering the technological playing field and challenging longstanding legal and economic norms, it essentially erodes the wall that separated radio from retail throughout the decades. Without tangible records and dedicated broadcasting towers, how can we know whether a song file, consisting of 1s & 0s, zipping from server to client or peer to peer, should be treated more like radio or retail? We’ve developed technological formats, which we call “downloading” and “streaming,” to emulate the limitations of 20th Century distribution platforms, and developed laws, like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, to enforce these limitations, but without the complex and expensive physical infrastructure of traditional radio and retail, the old media ecology is coming to seem increasingly arbitrary, and impedimental to innovation. To put it simply, the only thing holding the old music industry ecology together at this point is a thin veneer of copyright law, enforced (literally at times) at gunpoint.

Given the history of exploitation they have suffered at the hands of the Labels, you could have imagined the interests of performers/composers and fans/audiences being aligned against the labels as these new systems of production and circulation rolled out. Why have we seen such conflict between the interests of music producers and consumers?

This is a really interesting question, though its premise is a bit reductionist. In point of fact, a great many recording artists have expressed vocal support for increased consumer power, and have embraced technologies and business models that presuppose consumers’ ability to copy and share music at no cost (examples in the book range from seeding P2P networks to crowdfunding campaigns to giving away CDs with the Sunday paper). And, conversely, a great many consumers have expressed support for paying artists, and have put their money where their mouths are, via an ever-expanding range of channels.

Yet, as you point out, there is an increasingly urgent strain of public debate that claims that artists and other creative professionals are being asked to “give away” the fruits of their labor because “consumers demand it.” While this is a mischaracterization of the actual situation, it is based around a grain of truth — namely, that it is unclear whether or how the “new economy” or “sharing economy” can compensate every creator for their work to the degree that it will subsidize the time and resources spent producing the work.

This debate is partially fueled by creative professionals who are genuinely uncertain about their career prospects. They may have developed certain forms of expertise (e.g. playing the cello, composing a photograph) under an old economic model, and perhaps even managed to eke out a living doing creative work under that model (though most did not). Now they are being told their old skills are devalued, and that they are expected to develop new additional ones (e.g. garnering social media followers) to compensate. That’s a very real problem, and should be taken seriously.

On the other hand, a great deal of the most vitriolic debate is being fueled somewhat cynically by the interstitial organizations that used to exploit creative labor in the old economy, from record labels and publishers to performing rights organizations and management companies. These organizations want to protect their cut of the money generated by creative labor, and wave the flag of artist rights in order to do so. Yet, historically, these interstitial organizations soaked up the lion’s share of the wealth, leaving only crumbs for creators – analysis by industry guru Donald Passman, for instance, has shown that for every $1,000 consumers spent on music via traditional retail, recording artists were only paid about $24 on average.

What’s happening now is that, because the shape of the music industry is in flux, not only does every stakeholder want to preserve its historical percentage, each one is also jockeying to increase its piece of the pie. Labels and recording artists want to be paid for radio – a privilege previously enjoyed only by songwriters and publishers. Songwriters and publishers want royalties for retail distribution and subscriptions equivalent to those garnered by recording artists – a far cry from the much smaller cut they previously enjoyed. Online webcasters want to pay the same royalties as terrestrial radio providers (currently their rate is much higher). Everyone wants more, more, more, and somehow it’s the consumers’ fault that they can’t grow the pie fast enough to accommodate all the larger slices. In the meantime, the Internet has drastically expanded the “shelf space” and “air time” available to recording artists, which means that instead of a few dozen or a few hundred musicians sharing the pittance that trickles down to them, now the tens of millions of recording artists available on iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio each require adequate compensation for their contributions. Is the local niche artist with 1,000 streams per month any less deserving of a percentage than the megastar with millions of streams?

To make matters worse, or at least more complex, some of the new gatekeepers (mostly Google and Apple) are actually making money facilitating the flow of music across digital networks, and all the aggrieved parties count these gains directly against their own perceived losses. Never mind that whatever percentage of the music economy Google garners is minuscule compared to the labels’ and broadcasters’ traditional stake. Never mind that Spotify and Pandora are swimming in red ink from royalty payments and iTunes has always been a break-even business. Never mind that musicians have always been exploited by the very industries posing as their new BFFs, and that being a professional artist was always a risky career choice. It’s much simpler just to blame consumers and tech companies for ruining everything.

One of the key paradoxes for me here is that it is often the same Parent companies — Sony, say — which are selling us the tools to rip and remix music and also going to war to prevent us from using those tools on their own properties. Any insights on how people live with these contradictions within those companies?

The short answer is that large, vertically-integrated companies like Sony are labyrinths of contradiction. Different links in the “distribution chain” are natural competitors, and housing them under a single roof is like having both cats and dogs as pets. To make matters worse, these companies are increasingly beholden to shareholders who want to see immediate financial results (requiring that they privilege short-term tactics over long-term strategy), increasingly ruled by their legal departments (who seek to justify their own existence through litigation), and increasingly prone to executive turnover (partially as a result of the first two factors).

One of the things many of us think we know is that the music industry has suffered enormous losses as a consequence of the rise of digital music sharing. You offer a more complex picture in the book. What are some of the other forces that impacted the music industry during this period and why do they complicate our efforts to understand the impact of “digital piracy”?

For one thing, there isn’t a researcher on the planet who can honestly claim to understand what the “impact of digital piracy” is on music industry economics. Well-researched meta-analyses by scholars who have spent years examining P2P are inconclusive, acknowledging that, despite the significant volume of studies on the subject (including my own, dating back to 2000), there is no consensus. Essentially, the research serves as a kind of Rorschach test, allowing those who want to see a positive effect, those who want to see a negative effect, and those who want to see no effect at all each to cite multiple credible sources to support their preferred positions.

Another factor is that it’s not entirely clear whether and to what degree the music industry – or even the major labels – have suffered financially. Obviously, the overall sales figures are down (although by the recording industry’s own tallies, now conveniently forgotten, this trend began years before Napster). Yet there are multiple other revenue streams that have grown during the same years, from synch licensing to digital performance royalties to live events, all of which add to major label coffers, as well as other growth areas, such as independent and used music sales and device sales, which mostly don’t. And, of course, costs have been cut significantly at the majors, which means that even flat revenues would represent higher profits. As music industry ledgers are notoriously opaque, there’s no way to simply throw back the curtains and let the sunlight clear things up.

Even if we just focus on retail sales of new, major label music, there are multiple factors that have contributed to the economic transformation of the industry over the past 15 years which have nothing to do with online music sharing. These range from economic trends (two recessions, shrinking household incomes) to the transformation of the music retail industry (driven by rising real estate costs and shrinking margins from “big box” underselling) to the eradication of a nationwide price-fixing scheme at the hands of federal and state regulators, to the end of the “CD replacement cycle” which led everyone in the 1990s to replace the cassettes and LPs they already owned with shiny new CDs of the same albums, to the “unbundling” of music, allowing people to buy 99-cent MP3s of their favorite songs without also subsidizing the “filler” content on the albums they belong to. Ultimately, as I discuss in my book, an unprecedented “perfect bubble” for the major labels in the 1980s-’90s was followed by a “perfect storm” in the 2000s. Again, this had nothing to do with online sharing per se, although they share some common contributory factors, such as the digitization of content, and the evolution of consumer music listening habits and tastes.

Aram Sinnreich is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, in the Department of Journalism & Media Studies. His work focuses on the intersection of culture, law and technology, with an emphasis on emerging media and music. He is the author of two books, Mashed Up (2010), and The Piracy Crusade (2013), and has written for publications including the New York Times, Billboard and Wired. Prior to Rutgers, Sinnreich served as Director at media innovation lab OMD Ignition Factory, Managing Partner of media/tech consultancy Radar Research, Visiting Professor at NYU Steinhardt, and Senior Analyst at Jupiter
Research. He is also a bassist and composer, and has played with groups and artists including progressive soul band Brave New Girl, dub-and-bass collective Dubistry, Agent 99, King Django, and Ari-Up, lead singer of the Slits. Sinnreich holds a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Southern California, and a master’s in Journalism from Columbia University.

Playing the Piracy Card: An Interview with Aram Sinnreich (Part One)

Few topics generate such instant division in this town as the issue of media piracy. Half of my friends are deeply concerned that unauthorized use of media content is closing down opportunities for creative artists and the other half believe that the efforts to combat piracy are having a devastating impact on long-standing principles of fair use. Aram Sinnreich’s new book, The Piracy Crusade: How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties plunges right into the center of that controversy, situating the current debate in a larger historical context. I had thought I had read and learned what I could around this question over the past decade plus of post-Napster analysis but Sinnreich took me to some new places and raises a number of important insights. You will get a taste for his perspective in the interview that follows.

I interviewed the author in 2010 when his previous book, Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture, came out. You can read that interview here. I wrote at the time, “The book deftly deals with the contradictory ways we think about the legal and aesthetic status of music which builds on borrowed materials, the ways that musicians are making sense of their indebtedness to earlier works, and the ways that audiences are making sense of the emerging practices of music production and distribution in a digital era.” His new book picks up where that one left off, updating his assessment of the ways that debates around intellectual property are impacting contemporary music-making– once again helping us to understand his topic from multiple angles, while leaving little question of where his own sympathies lie.

Let’s start with two words which are fundamental to the book’s project — “Piracy” and “Crusade.” Both are highly loaded, some would say inflamed, words, which give the debate around music downloading much of its moral charge. So, break them down for us. How are you using them here? What has been their history? How did they enter this debate?

I spend a fair amount of the Introduction and first chapter addressing this question. As it turns out, long before it was applied to intellectual property, the fundamental premise of “piracy” was highly politicized, and used cynically as a rhetorical tool and as a justification for political and military intervention into the commercial sphere (for an even more thorough treatment of this history, check out the excellent books by Daniel Heller-Roazen and Adrian Johns).

The concept of piracy relies on the delegitimization of certain actors, relegating them to the status of “pirates” in order to justify violence against them and to contest their claims of ownership over goods. By contrast, “privateers” who engaged in identical behavior (e.g. intercepting ships and seizing the goods they carried) operated under the aegis of sovereign states and were thus understood as not only legitimate but essential to promoting said state’s economic interests. Needless to say, in many historical cases, much like today, one person’s “pirate” was another’s champion.

One thing I learned from Johns is that the mantle of “piracy” as applied to information not only predates copyright and intellectual property laws, but was actually deliberately employed by early book publishers as a rhetorical conceit to justify their call for such laws to be passed. In other words, piracy didn’t arise in response to IP; to the contrary, IP was created in order to counter the phantom threat of piracy. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I use the term in the book’s title, and throughout the book, precisely in order to bring attention to the artifice behind this conceit. Today, as the result of a sustained, multi-century propaganda campaign by information oligopolists (e.g. record labels, print and software publishers, film studios), the conceit has taken root in public consciousness, and many of us take it for granted that sharing information without permission from rights holders is an act of piracy, plain and simple. I can’t critique this conceit without invoking it, but I do so very deliberately and carefully. Incidentally, copyleft pioneer Richard M. Stallman read some early chapter drafts, and adamantly disagreed with this tactic; to him, even using the term in a critical way gives it more strength and legitimacy. I appreciate his position, but I ultimately opted to use the term critically rather than to pretend it doesn’t exist.

As to the word “crusade,” I’ll admit that it’s a bit of a rhetorical flourish, but certainly not a novel one; according to a rudimentary Google search, it’s been used millions of times in reference to the music industry’s antipiracy efforts. And if you dig a little deeper, the reason for this becomes clear; a crusade is by definition an act of coordinated aggression draped in the mantle of righteous dogma, shaded with colonialist, or at least expansionist, overtones. In the introduction to the book, I offer a capsule history of the siege of Mahdia by the Genoese in 1390, and as I hope I demonstrate, the number of parallels to today’s “copyfight” are truly staggering.

Those of us who question current copyright regimes are often asked whether we would give our own content away for free. You have, in fact, taken some important steps to broaden access to this book. What are they and why have you taken those extra steps?

First of all, when I pitched this book to my publishers at University of Massachusetts Press, I asked them to release the full text under a Creative Commons license, which allows noncommercial redistribution without permission or payment. I’m not the first academic author to do this, but it was a new step for UMP, and I’m gratified that they trusted me enough try it out.

Once I had the CC license in place, I was free to share the text as I saw fit. I decided to post a live draft of the book manuscript as I wrote it; each day, another 300-1,200 words would be “published” to a blog site for the book hosted by MediaCommons Press. This turned out to be a great decision, because not only did I get thousands of readers before I completed the manuscript, but the scores of substantive comments I received via the site and via email allowed me to improve the book significantly. In a sense, the paperback/ebook version is the second edition. And while I’m the nominal author, each of the commenters played a role in shaping the text. All of the non-anonymous ones get a shout-out in the book’s Acknowledgments section. The first draft is still up at MediaCommons Press, in case anyone’s geeky enough to want to compare versions.

The CC license also means that the book’s finished version is available freely to anyone who wants to read it. Again, UMP went out on a limb for me and provided me with a fully laid-out PDF a few months after it was published in paperback and ebook formats. The file sharing software company Vuze contacted me and offered to put together a “bundle” for the book, which includes both the full PDF and three videos of talks I’ve given on the subject, then seeded the bundle to BitTorrent and promoted it to their users. No money changed hands. In the first two weeks after the bundle launched, the torrent file was downloaded over 50,000 times and my Amazon author rank climbed precipitously, from a summer doldrums low of 350,000 to about 69,000. Today, almost two months after the launch, well over a thousand peers are sharing the bundle at any given point in time, and my sales rank has continued an upward trend.

As to the “why” part of your question: First of all, given the book’s general thrust, I would have felt like a hypocrite if I hadn’t released the book freely online. Second, I genuinely believed it would improve my sales, and it seems to have done just that. Third, I want as many people to read the book as possible – both because I hope it will have an impact on policy and the overall conversation about IP, and because I believe people should have access to information that’s vital to their wellbeing. Finally, as you suggest in your question, I’m frequently challenged by critics who, believing I lack the courage of my convictions, challenge me to distribute my own work freely, and I love to see the look on their faces when I tell them I’ve done just that.

Throughout much of human history, one could make the case that music was understood in terms of the relationships which it facilitated — the communities it helped to bring together, the rituals it enhanced — and not the products it produced. Yet, having turned music into an industry rather than a social practice, is there anyway back? Is the music industry “too big to fail”?

No, I don’t think there’s a way back, but I do believe in a way forward. I devote some time in both The Piracy Crusade and in my previous book, Mashed Up, to exploring music’s pre-commodity past not because I want to eradicate it from the marketplace but because I think we need to appreciate its full role in human culture and consciousness, of which the market is only one small facet. As long as there is a marketplace, I’m confident that music will continue to be a commodity, because that’s precisely the role that music always plays – as a microcosm for larger social processes and a vector for social imagination. As long as there’s a church, there will be church music, and as long as there is a military, there will be military music, etc. etc.

All that being said, I don’t think at the music industry as we currently conceive of it (major labels and publishers, broadcasting cartels, etc.) is “too big to fail” in the same way the banks are. Without the banking system, we wouldn’t have credit or currency; without labels, publishers and broadcasters, we’d still have a thriving musical culture, though perhaps not a national or global “pop” culture. Any student of media history knows that the titans of the previous century are often humbled or eradicated in the next; there’s no conceivable reason that the same fate couldn’t befall a company like Universal Music Group or Clear Channel – though neither really needs to worry in the near term, as they’re both aggressively pursuing transitional distribution platforms and business models.

 

Aram Sinnreich is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, in the
Department of Journalism & Media Studies. His work focuses on the
intersection of culture, law and technology, with an emphasis on
emerging media and music. He is the author of two books, Mashed Up
(2010), and The Piracy Crusade (2013), and has written for publications
including the New York Times, Billboard and Wired. Prior to Rutgers,
Sinnreich served as Director at media innovation lab OMD Ignition
Factory, Managing Partner of media/tech consultancy Radar Research,
Visiting Professor at NYU Steinhardt, and Senior Analyst at Jupiter
Research. He is also a bassist and composer, and has played with groups
and artists including progressive soul band Brave New Girl,
dub-and-bass collective Dubistry, Agent 99, King Django, and Ari-Up,
lead singer of the Slits. Sinnreich holds a Ph.D. in Communication from
the University of Southern California, and a master’s in Journalism from
Columbia University.

It’s in the Paint!

The following is a guest post by film scholar and journalist John C. Tibbetts from the University of Kansas.

 

IT’S IN THE PAINT!
By John C. Tibbetts

My expectations run high for Mike Leigh’s new film, Mr. Turner, a dramatization of the last few years in the life of the great British landscape painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). During the first half of the 19th century, Turner attacked his canvases with a brutal and revolutionary zeal that virtually launched Modernism as we have come to know it. If Leigh’s other biopic, the masterful Topsy-Turvy (1991), about the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s masterpiece, The Mikado, is any indication of his gift for the historical/biographical recreation of 19th century England, then Mr. Turner should be something special indeed.

Meanwhile, mindful of Graham Greene’s dictum that the lives of artists are the most difficult of subjects, my thoughts turn to some of my favorite films that have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to dramatize the lives and works of famous painters. I am particularly fond of the Alexander Korda-Charles Laughton Rembrandt (1936), with its vivid dramatization of the controversy attending the unveiling of “The Night Watch” and, best of all, Laughton’s moving soliloquy on the virtues of his beloved Saskia.

Artemisia (1997), Agnes Merlet’s recreation of a scandalous episode in the life and works of the early 16th century artist Artimesia Gentileschi (Valentina Cervi), is a stunning meditation on the lamentable status of women in this patriarchal world—as well as a convincing recreation of the details and processes of contemporary fresco painting.

Albert Lewin’s The Moon and Sixpence (1942), is a respectable adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel about a fictionalized Paul Gauguin (George Sanders), and if nothing else, it pulls no punches in conveying the boorish, unrelenting self-centered aspects of this particular genius. And there is Martin Provost’s magnificent Seraphine (2008), about Seraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau), an illiterate, middle-aged housekeeper whose paintings propel her to unexpected fame, while her descent into madness leads to her demise in a lunatic asylum. Here, the blazing images of flowers, fruits, and trees, transcend her stark, grubby surroundings and lifestyle.

Not everybody shares my abiding interest in biopics of artists. For example, years ago, back in during an interview in 1991 with the late Roger Ebert, I broached the subject. Now, Roger knew a thing or two about painters and painting, was an amateur collector of British watercolors, and even wrote about it in A Perfect London Walk (1985). Hence, I was eager for his opinion. “Well, the problem is,” he said, “movies like this are almost always based on potted Freudianism, where two or three childhood, or adolescent, episodes are trotted out to explain the artist’s work. I think great art is kind of inexplicable. What the movies do is cater to kind of a vulgar impulse in all of us to know or to want to understand how an artist is great and why. And so if we can find out that his mother didn’t love him or he was abandoned by a cruel girlfriend or he didn’t perform very well in the Army or something, then we can nod and say, ‘Oh, that’s why he was so good!’ Nobody would be satisfied, I think, with an artist’s biography that told the truth, which is that apart from any human attributes of this person, he simply happened to be able to do what he did as well as he did.”
Yes, that sort of tin-can psychology all too frequently mars biopics of every description. Yet, Ebert went on to admit that two films he had just seen, Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo (1990) and Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991), had succeeded in conveying not so much a biographical but a dramatic, even artistic truth—the action of the creative process itself.

The best thing about the Altman, he explained, was that it did not attempt a psychological diagnosis. “We see Van Gogh [Tim Roth] at work, not because he wanted to but because he had to. There are no explanations. It explains nothing but feels everything.” Similarly, the Rivette, Ebert continued, a four-hour film about a fictitious painter (Michel Piccoli) painting a beautiful nude model (Emmanuel Beart), is essentially one long session at the easel: “There’s this extraordinary long, long sustained passage, where he’s simply drawing her. A lot of the time the camera is simply on the paper; and he goes through pen and ink and he goes through charcoal, he works with washes, he goes on to oil. The suspense involved in watching this process taking place is actually as exciting as a thriller, I’m telling you. It’s a really good film.”

Here, I should add, the hands of Actor Piccoli are convincingly “doubled” by those of painter Bernard Dufour. Too many times, however, in too many other films, we see an actor who obviously knows nothing about painting touching an obviously empty brush to an image that’s obviously already there. And think of Charlton Heston’s impotent brush flailing at the “pre-painted” frescoes in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965). The effect is rather like watching an actor who is a non-musician pretending to play a piano—think of Cornell Wilde’s unconvincing miming of Jose Iturbi’s keyboard performances of Chopin in A Song to Remember (1945)—or Anthony Perkins’s clumsy attempts to play baseball in the Jimmy Piersall biopic, Fear Strikes Out (1957). Best to stick with the tight close-ups and prolonged shots in Peter Watkins’s Edward Munch (1967) of just the painter’s hands as they assault the canvas and the etching plate in an epic battle for supremacy, establishing a compelling graphic authenticity.

A particularly wry and compelling example is found in one of the finest films of this year, Tim’s Vermeer. We watch spellbound as amateur painter Tim Jenison actually creates a Vermeer painting, “The Music Lesson”—not a copy, but an original work on its own, crafted by means of optical devices and an elaborately recreated 3-dimensional set. We gain not only an insight into how Vermeer worked, but are granted enticing hints into the life, times, and circumstances of this particular painting. As a dramatic experience, the film crosses the boundary lines dividing documentary from drama, the amateur painter from the venerable master.

Indeed, Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” is the star performer of the show. Which brings to mind another star turn by Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” (2003), in Peter Webber’s film of that name. The conception and execution of the painting is positioned at the center of this beautifully realized milieu of 17th-century Amsterdam and the illiterate young servant girl (Scarlett Johansson) who poses for the painter (Colin Firth).

It’s amusing to think of other paintings as actors in their own movies. A slashed canvas is a mute “witness” to the identity of the murderer in Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929). Landscape Paintings and their real-life counterparts are counterposed in the “Van Gogh” sequence in Kurosawa’s Dreams. Likewise, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s images of Lizzie Siddal share screen time with actress Judith Paris’s impersonation of her in Ken Russell’s Dante’s Inferno (1967). No single image in the succession of sketches by the titular late 17th-century painter (Anthony Higgins) in Peter Greenaway’s edgy The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) can reveal the mystery at the heart of the film; but taken together, like a succession of shots in a montage. . . they proclaim an awful truth—and lead to the demise of the hapless painter.

The colorful religious icons of the 15th century painter Andrei Rublev in Tarkovsky’s epic film (1971) are kept “offstage,” as it were, blazing forth only in a barrage of images in the final reel. Of course, not all paintings at the center of movies are A-list actors. The Technicolor portraits of Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jenny (1949) and Hurd Hatfield in Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) are strictly B-grade performers—the first a tepid Hollywood visualization of one of Thomas Dewings’s turn-of-the century vapid women; the second a schlock nightmare straight out of Hammer Films stock company.

Sometimes just a blank canvas can speak eloquently enough. In the aforementioned Rembrandt (1936), Charles Laughton’s titular hero sits at the easel as he grieves the loss of his beloved Saskia. “I have to paint her,” he whispers to the empty chair where lately she sat, “before her memory fades.”
So we wait impatiently for the holiday release of Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. It is the only biopic to date about England’s most celebrated painter. What, we wonder, will Leigh make of this prickly and decidedly eccentric loner, and of what Leigh describes as his “cinematic” paintings, such as the roiling “Rain, Steam, and Speed” and the furiously grim “The Slave Ship”?

 John C. Tibbetts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film & Media Studies at the University ofKansas, where he teaches courses in film history, media studies, and theory and aesthetics. He is an author, educator, broadcaster, as well as an artist and pianist. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in Multi-Disciplinary Studies (Art History, Theater, Photography and Film).

As a broadcaster and journalist and scholar he has hosted his own television show in Kansas City, Missouri; worked as a news reporter/ commentator for CBS Television (KCTV) and National Public Radio; produced classical music programming for KXTR-FM radio; written (and illustrated) ten  books, more than 200 articles, and several short stories.  

His most recent books are Peter Weir: Interviews and Douglas Fairbanks And The American Century.   Other books include  The Gothic Imagination (Palgrave Mcmillan, 2011), Composers in the Movies:  Studies in Musical Biography (2005, Yale University Press), Schumann: A Chorus of Voices (2010, Amadeus Press), and the three-volume American Classic Screen (Scarecrow Press, 2010).

His current radio series are The World of Robert Schumann (currently being broadcast worldwide on the WFMT Radio Network) and Piano Portraits (A 17-episode series of interviews with world–class concert pianists). 

 

My Favorite Things: Bryan Talbot, Graphic Novel Man

I’ve learned through the years that you should be cautious about meeting people you admire — great artists whose work speaks to you on a profound level rarely live up to the persona you’ve constructed for them in your mind’s eye. There’s bound to be some kind of disappointment or disillusionment. So, I did not know what to expect when I took a long train trip out to Sunderland a few summers ago to meet Bryan Talbot, the remarkable comics artist and storyteller, who has been credited with producing some of the first graphic novels to emerge from the British comics scene. Thanks to a mutual friend, Billy Proctor, I had been invited to visit Talbot and his wife, Mary, a feminist linguist and cultural theorist, in their home, mostly to make contact, since I had plans (still do, alas) to write an essay about Alice in Sunderland as part of a larger project on comics and material culture.

As it happens, the day I arrived was also a day when documentary filmmaker Russell Wall was shooting a segment for a feature length film, The Graphic Novel Man, he was coproducing with James Guy. If there’s a risk of meeting your heroes, there’s also some of the same risk attached to seeing their lives and world depicted through a documentary. In this case, though, there is no disappointment.

I have had several other chances to interact with Talbot over the past few years, and each encounter has been more enchanting than the last. The Graphic Novel Man, which was released this summer, similarly, brings a smile to my face because it captures some much of what makes Talbot a wonderful, charming man and a risk-taking artist who is continuing to push himself and his medium to the breaking point.

My goal today is to offer an appreciation of The Graphic Novel Man, which you can purchase and download at Vimeo and should. But it can not also escape being an appreciation of Talbot’s contributions to the art of graphic storytelling.

Early on, Dez Skinn characterizes Talbot as the “David Bowie of comics,” describing his shape-shifting capacity: Talbot adjusts his style to the demands of different kinds of stories and has worked across the full spectrum of British comics — from early work in the underground comics through commercial work on The Sandman or Batman through to his more mature works, the Luther Arkwright saga, A Tale of One Bad Rat, Alice in Sunderland, the Grandville series, and A Dotter in Her Father’s Eyes. Taking Talbot’s virtuosity as a starting point, The Graphic Novel Man surveys his work, offering expert commentary from his contemporaries, and from time to time, giving us a chance to really focus on the complex choices he makes in the construction of any given page.

This is where Graphic Novel Man shines: It comes from a rich tradition of work by British documentarians on the visual arts, in which the viewer is assumed to be at once curious and intelligent, capable of learning to see the world through the eyes of the particular artist, and willing to pay attention to technique. So, across the film, we learn about how Talbot took influences from 1960s cinema, especially the work of Sam Peckinpah and Nicholas Roeg, in order to restructure our experience of time and focus our attention on the ethics and politics of violence. Or Neil Gaiman shows us what Talbot brought to their collaboration on Sandman, stressing Talbot’s extensive research into the classical world, and the ways that this expertise influenced his use of light and shadow across a particular compelling segment.

Or we learn about the ways Talbot taps into the British “funny animal” tradition to inform the design of characters for his Grandville series and the ways that these books incorporate both broad puns and subtle visual jokes. Accompanying shorts take us into Talbot’s studio, where we get to watch him develop a page for Grandville and describe the choices he makes in its design. I’ve stood in that actual studio and seen other yet to be finished pages on his drawing board.

We learn about Talbot’s work from a broad array of his contemporaries including an introduction by science fiction writer Michael Moorcock and commentary by Neil Gaiman, Joe Sacco, Warren Ellis, Gilbert Shelton, Ian Rankin, Kim Newman, David Lloyd, Pat Mills, John Wagner, Charlie Adlard, Carlos Ezquerra, D’Israeli, Doug Braithwaite, Andy Diggle, Simon Fraser, Al Davison, Mary Talbot, Hunt Emerson, Paul Gravett, Mark Stafford, Dr. Mel Gibson, Lee Harris, Dan Charnley and yours truly.

A key theme running across the film is Talbot’s relationship to British culture — whether the stories and landscapes associated with Beatrice Potter that inform One Bad Rat or his life-long fascination with Victoriana, which led him to be a key influence on the emergence of Steampunk in the visual arts.

This focus on British history and culture is central to Alice in Sunderland, the work of his which spoke to me the most.

Reading Alice in Sunderland is an overwhelming experience — not simply because of its epic scale whether judged by its 300 plus page length or through its historical scope, which traces the history of a town in Northwest England from the Age of Reptiles and the era of St. Bede through to the present moment and shows how it has functioned as a crossroads for many of the cultural currents which have shaped British history. But, even on the level of the single page, Sunderland is overwhelming because of the way that Talbot has built it up primarily through techniques borrowed from photocomics and especially through the use of collage. Each page may feature dozens of images Talbot has collected from archives — old photographs, documents, woodcuts, carved marble, stained-glass windows, film stills, cartoons, and printed books, all jockeying for our attention, each conveying separate bits of information relevant to the historical narrative he is developing, but each gaining far greater meaning when situated within the book’s gestalt.

Talbot insists that he is a storyteller, not a historian, yet one can not help but be impressed by the vast amount of archival research informing this book, and Alice is significant as much on the level of its historiographical construction as it is on the level of its formal execution. At the center of this narrative, as its title might suggest, is the story of Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, who lived for a time in Sunderland and met Alice Liddell, his young muse, for whom his fairy story was dedicated. On the surface, the book can be read as an obsessive argument for the priority of Sunderland over Oxford as the site from which to understand the origins of Carroll’s Wonderland, yet in the process of making such claims, Talbot goes further, linking Alice and Carroll to a much broader array of stories (from ancient mythology to music hall comedy) which have sprung from the same geographic and cultural roots.

Sunderland, thus, is a project in radical intertextuality, forging links between dispersed narratives drawn from both history and fiction, mapping them onto a highly localized geography. For all of its historical expansiveness, the core structure of the book is a tour, walking up and down the streets of Sunderland, as Talbot points out various monuments and landmarks, linking them into the emerging narrative of British history. And on yet another meta-level, Talbot is trying to connect his own medium, comics, to a much broader history of artistic practices which combined words and pictures to construct narratives, including a consideration of Carroll’s relations with his illustrator John Tenniel, the Bayeux Tapestry, William Blake, and William Hogarth, as well as patches of many different comics genres.

Sunderland can best be described as a hypertext in printed form, and as such, it becomes often incomprehensible, impossible to grasp fully in a single or even multiple readings, and it is the immensity of its vision, more than anything else, which we carry away from us. The hypertext analogy is no accident since Talbot himself translated one of his earlier graphic novels, Heart of Empire, into a CD-ROM so that he could layer upon the page annotations which traced its intertextual roots. Like a conspiracy theory, everything is connected, yet for this very reason, it is impossible to fully exhaust the layers of allusions that shape this work. Such layers are only fully achievable in a graphic medium where, in this case, each picture speaks a thousand words. Unlike a conspiracy theorist, Talbot actively encourages our skepticism, encouraging us to question every statement, and at places, the artist seems to have a crisis of faith in his own project.

There’s a delightful segment in Graphic Novel Man describing how Talbot’s search for the ideal Victorian factory to use for a scene in one of the Grandville graphic novels led him around the world wide web and back again to a neighboring village. As this segment suggests, Talbot is a world-builder, someone who thinks through every element he puts on his page, and can speak about its larger implications for the society he is depicting. Yet, often, as he does so, he is drawing implicitly and often explicitly on references to the material world, places he has been, buildings he has entered, things that he owns, all of which give his drawings much of their particularity.

When I was interviewing Talbot, in the midst of a room whose walls are covered by all kinds of carved masks from around the world, he told me he was not “a collector” — simply “an accumulator” — and he pointed at one point to a cabinet of curiosity which figures in Alice, full of various pop culture icons and artifacts he had gathered through the years. Many of his books have the appeal of a cabinet of curiosities but the worlds are more systematically developed than this focus on random encounters might suggest. There is both rhyme and reason to the details he includes, and this film gives us a sense of what guides his pen.

The film ends with a focus on Dotter in Her Father’s Eyes, itself a remarkable collaboration. Bryan challenged Mary to write her own graphic novel, using as its starting point her troubled relationship with her father, a noted Joyce scholar; Dotter extends outward to incorporate a second narrative — that of Joyce’s equally problematic relationship with his own daughter, Lucia. The words come from Mary, the images from Bryan, but working together pushed the artist to develop yet another visual style, one softer, more intimate, than any we have seen before. There are few examples in graphic storytelling of husband and wife collaborations on this level — the complex conversation in Dirty Laundry between R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb comes to mind. There’s a similar fascination here in watching husband and wife work through this story together, sometimes correcting each other’s memories. Bryan appears throughout the book as a character, not always a totally sympathetic one.

Graphic Novel Man, by contrast, is very much Bryan Talbot’s story, a great tribute to a artist who has always refused to rest on his laurels, who rejected the easy path towards commercial success. Mary descibes her husband’s routine of doing a page a day, no matter what, yet also tells us that he sometimes finds himself so engaged with adding extra details that he fails to meet those goals, too much a craftsman for his own good. Graphic Novel Man is attentive to the work that came on Bryan’s slower days, when he broke with his own production regime, in order to spend as much time as he needed to fully realize a particularly detailed page, because his sense of professionalism, his artistic vision, demanded it. Such pages are pure gifts to the reader and often represent moments of virtuosity for the artist.

If you love comics, you owe it to yourself to discover Talbot’s work, and one of the best ways to do so is to watch Graphic Novel Man.