Copywrong

I hereby proclaim Blood and Bone to be the finest direct-to-dvd martial arts movie of the last 30 years, and Michael Jai White to be the most underrated action star in the world.  Chop-socky fans will particularly enjoy a lightning-brief cameo near the end of the film by Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris compatriot Bob Wall, who is actually referred to in the movie as “O’Hara”, which was his name in the legendary kung fu classic, Enter The Dragon.

Jai White, as my new on-screen martial arts hero, has the added benefit of being exactly my age.  If he can maintain this age-defying physique, then why can’t all we old folks?

Blood and Bone famously has creepy cameos by professional fighters Kimbo Slice and Bob Sapp, both of whom are a decade younger than White.  Interestingly, a conversation on the set of the film has become a popular internet meme.  Check out Jai White teaching Kimbo how to throw an untelegraphed karate punch:

Now this is all to segue into today’s real topic, which is copyright reform.  See, Michael Jai White recently created a nice little satire called Black Dynamite.  Like all movies these days, the film was leaked onto the internet in advance of its theatrical release.  Jai White’s response was instructive, and is yet one more reason that I’m a fan of the man.  He didn’t claim “piracy” and demand legal action against downloaders.  Instead, he simply (supposedly) asked people to give the movie another shot in the cinemas:

“Dear Black Dynamite fans:

I can tell by watching the activity on the Internet that people around the world are eager to see Black Dynamite.

It is our fans who have helped us get the word out thus far, and we greatly appreciate the love and support they have shown us.

As I am sure you know, an early cut of the movie has leaked on the Internet, and seems to be quite popular. Last I checked, the comments on Twitter and Facebook have been only positive. I love that the buzz on the web is so good, and that we have so many new fans. But I would like to stress that the version of the film online is NOT the final cut.

The final cut of Black Dynamite, which is currently in theaters, is the way director Scott Sanders and I envisioned the movie. It is the film we are proud of, and the one we want to share with audiences worldwide.

Believe me, if you or people you know like the rough cut of Black Dynamite you saw online, you will love the final cut of the film that is in theaters now. For a current list of showtimes and theaters, check out The Official Black Dynamite website (http://www.blackdynamitemovie.com/movie_listing)

If you love the version you saw online, then support the film and buy a t-shirt (http://www.blackdynamitemovie.com/store-main).

My sincere thanks.

Best regards,

Michael Jai White (Black Dynamite)”

A while back, a student interviewed me (in the capacity of professional writer) for a project she was doing on the advent of electronic book readers, like the Amazon Kindle, specifically about its supposed challenge to copyright.   The other writers she had interviewed (including some big names that I will not mention here) apparently were aghast at the prospect of e-books cutting into writers’ incomes.

I, on the other hand, had another take.  I’m all for copyright reform and the expansion of free access to more content for more people.  At the end of the day, the question all of us who provide content need to ask is… why are we here?  Is it to make money, or is it to be enjoyed by an audience?  Obviously, the answer is a little bit of both.  But too often in the discussion of piracy is the role of artist conflated with the role of businessperson or moneymaker.  The irony is that the loosening of copyright restrictions would allow the creators’ primary goal, that of being experienced, to be more fully realized.

It would be nice if my books actually made any money.  But I never expected that they would.  It’s more important for me that someone actually reads them and knows that I wrote them.  That’s why writers support libraries, right?  We don’t make any money when someone checks out our books from the local branch, but no one accuses the public library of promoting piracy!

Now, with rich media, like movies and music, it’s a tad more complicated, since these products can be copied and shared more easily than a book.  There are a few points to consider here, though.  First is that the technology for file creation and sharing is with us and will only get better.  Trying to ban it is simply a losing proposition.  Second is that, in the case of both industries, we the consumers have been force-fed over-priced crap for so long now that, in strict economic terms, piracy might have been an unavoidable development to allow the average out-of-pocket expense to become equalized.  And third, what exactly is a user of so-called pirated material supposed to have “stolen” anyway?

What do I mean by this?  Well, if a musician writes and performs a song, what is it that he or she actually owns?  In modern legal parlance, I suppose it’s argued that the musician owns the song and the immediate performance and all recordings of that performance.  But is this really rational?  If I hear a song on the radio and then sing it, am I violating the writer’s copyright?  If I sing it and charge people to hear me sing it, am I in breach of copyright?  The lawyers among you, I’m sure, will explain in minute detail why I am or am not.  But I don’t care about the legal specifics.  What I care about is how we, as a human society, choose to define ownership.  Let’s take it out of the hands of the lawyers for a moment.

If someone were to pay for one of my books, read one of my stories,  then went on to tell that story to a friend… that would be just fine.  A more formal way of doing it would be for that person to photocopy the story and give it to the friend. Yet somehow the act of photocopying is considered an illegal act.  Why?  It’s not the font and typesetting that are the valuable components of the product, but the story itself.  Moreover, when I buy a book or a CD, do I not own that thing?  Is this not what buying it is supposed to mean?  And if I own it, can I not copy it or share it?

Yes, yes, I know about “intellectual property”.  But what the fuck is that supposed to mean, anyway?

Obviously, the reason that a photocopy is illegal but a re-telling isn’t is that the monetization of art products, like books, is in the selling of the medium, not the content.  So the medium must be controlled in order to define and control the cash flow.  But is this not utter foolishness?

If I may include myself, as an author, among the group of people called “artists”, then I declare that it’s an artist’s job to create cultural content.  Period.  The most I can hope from that act of creation is that others will acknowledge that it was I who created it.  And I hope that society will give some protection to the creation so that it cannot be corrupted or claimed by someone else.  But even the corruption requirement is a bit stodgy, since it impinges on the culture’s ability to use cultural content to create more art.

What this means is that I, as an artist or creator of cultural content, don’t care if you pay for my stories and books.  I don’t care where you get them from.  All I care is that you read them, share them, and acknowledge that it was I who created them.

Now, it’s a totally different matter if someone tries to profit from one of my creations.  That, to me, violates the social contract of this creation process.  That, to me, is real piracy.

Have I made some sense here?  I can’t tell.  It’s late and I’m tired and hungry.  But I’m sure that your comments (either angry or supportive) will let me know if I’ve been the least bit lucid.