D Murali

Ownership in a digital world

D. Murali | Updated on July 17, 2011


Countries that are highly technological have promoted the extension of ‘moral rights' to new technologies, from computer programs to collaborative works such as film, writes Mira T. Sundara Rajan in Moral Rights: Principles, practice and new technology (www.oup.com). ‘Moral rights,' for starters, are based on the idea that an author is personally invested in his or her work, as the introduction explains. “In view of this special relationship, an author's interest in the work transcends the motive of financial gain. Moral rights offer legal recognition to an author's special relationship with his or her own work.”

Acknowledging that the digital world offers the very exciting prospect of democratising knowledge, and of being able to do so on a grand scale, the author cautions that technology simultaneously creates a danger, that knowledge as we know it will disintegrate. “Knowledge may be degraded beyond recognition by alteration and manipulation. This dark side of the digital reality is likely to be favoured by a global economy that hungers for technology as an engine of growth.”

Poet and blacksmith

An instructive story written by the author's great grandfather – the ‘Indian national poet C. Subramania Bharati who lived from 1882 to 1921 in South India, and whose writings gave birth to the Tamil Renaissance of the early twentieth century' – adorns the preface. “Once upon a time, in a far-away country, lived a poet. One evening, the poet went out for a walk. As he passed the local blacksmith's shop, he heard the sound of singing. He suddenly stopped, and stood as if riveted to the spot.”

Why so? Because the blacksmith was singing the poet's own song, but not in its original form; strange words were in the place of the words the poet had written, and the rhythm was distorted. The narrative continues that after listening for a few moments, the poet entered the shop. “Inside, the blacksmith had kept good order. The tools and implements of his trade were neatly organised on the shelves. The poet promptly began to move around the shop, removing items from their place, rearranging things at random.”

Quite predictably, “The blacksmith jumped up and approached the poet, ‘Crazy man! What do you think you are doing?' he cried. ‘These tools are my property – my livelihood.'” The essence of the story comes forth in the poet's response, thus: “I am doing to your property what you were doing to mine. I am the poet who wrote the song you were singing. Poetry is, to me, what your property is to you – it is my livelihood.”

A river that has burst the banks

New technology is like a river that has burst the banks, describes the author. The rush of words, music, and images flows everywhere; and the Internet provides unlimited access, with technology seemingly impossible to resist, she adds. “Entire industries are overwhelmed, facing the ultimate choice to adapt or die. Copyright, with its insistence on authorisation and control, its emphasis on the rights and privileges of ownership, seems hopelessly old-fashioned. What is the relevance of ownership in an environment where the digital transformation of a work renders it irrevocably into the hands of the public?”

While digital technology has led to a struggle for rights, a struggle for control, the attempt to re-establish control in a digital environment masks a more troubling reality, feels Rajan. She sees new technology generating fundamental social change, in terms of altering human relationships with knowledge, an individual's relationship with his or her own mind. “Its impact on the intangible products of the mind affects creative expression in all its forms – knowledge, information, culture, folklore, oral traditions, myths. Few aspects of our mental life, as individuals or as groups, truly remain untouched.”

To those who wonder what the ‘intangible products of the mind' are, a vivid snatch in the book paints the digital world as ‘a playground for the entire spectrum of human creative activity,' involving information, knowledge and culture, bringing together phenomena from around the world, and drawing upon the entire time frame of civilised history. “From the digital perspective, all of this is known simply as ‘content.' It has been called the ‘raw material' that feeds the digital circuit.”

Google Books

If the world is already awash with information, where finding information – once a treasured achievement – is one of the easiest things to accomplish, projects like Google Books, whatever the outcome of the class action lawsuit, promise to make the information more widely available, in more forms than ever before, the author observes.

At the time of writing, a search for ‘Google Books case' shows Michael Stillman's article in www.americanaexchange.com, reporting that the hearing has been postponed. “At stake is potential online access to millions of books published after 1923 but no longer in print,” informs Stillman.

In Rajan's view, much of the discussion about the Google case seems to overlook the fundamental reality that Google has already scanned millions of books, and continues to do so as the case evolves. She highlights that though the Settlement may provide for what Google can do with the scans, the digitised works are there, available for Google's use, whether in the public arena of the Google search, or behind closed doors. “The culture has moved with Google. Its focus is on digital and online access, free access – as far as possible – and the possibility of ‘re-mixing' what is available to make something ‘new.'”

Importance of human relationships

The author makes a fervent appeal that the goal of technology should be to connect human beings – not to replace human relationships with the relationship between man and machine, deepening our growing alienation from our physical and spiritual environment. Information can be spread through technology, but education depends on the ability of human beings to communicate with each other about the significance of that information and its place in our lives, she argues.

“Behind every piece of knowledge, culture, or entertainment is at least one human being. The emphasis on ‘free' culture in the open access movements seems to negate the existence of that person and his or her efforts.”

Another forceful plea in the book is that culture can almost never be ‘free' in the sense that it is free of cost. A cultural work represents the effort of a human being, and whatever may have been the influences on that person, or the role of social or historical forces in shaping his work, the human person is essential to the act of creation, reminds Rajan. She traces that medieval thought considered the author a ‘vessel' for inspiration, while modern criticism sees the author as a ‘channel' of social forces. “But the author is still present, and it is his or her life that must be invested in the creation of the work. Without the author, there is nothing.”

Human rights issue

Importantly, the author distinguishes between copyright – which is a limited right, an economic right, an artificial privilege instituted by the state in order to further the public policy of providing an incentive to create works of value, in the economic sense of that term – and human right, concerning the survival of the author or a creative being, full-time or part-time.

In the digital era, human beings are subject to new kinds of treatment, avers Rajan. The digital world created by human beings is an ever-growing spider's web of amazing complexity, she alerts. “The spider at the centre remains, spinning its web, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to see.”

The author underlines the point that, in the world of new technology, the fragility of the human personality brings a new urgency to the protection of human rights, because the digitisation of an author's work initiates a vast pool of ripple effects involving the transformation and re-transformation of the work for new digital media.

“Without the work, technology has nothing to work upon; once a work enters into the technological circuit, however, the link between the work and its human creator becomes increasingly remote…”

An imperative read for anyone who cares for creativity.



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Published on July 17, 2011

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