The Weekly Pop: Episode #6: The Liberal Arts Lecture Part 1 (of 3)

It's time for the next episode of The Weekly Pop--that's number 6!  I know I've been on a bit of a hiatus but I got a bit busy, plans got rescheduled and well...these things happen right.  But I'm back and I've got a good line of the next 7 episodes!    

You can watch here, on YouTube or just read all about it in the post below.  Enjoy and let me know what you think!  Also, don't forget to check out

You can watch this episode on YouTube and all the other episodes as well.  (Also, feel free to subscribe to my channel on YouTube as well).



As always, you can find the full script below, but also, you can get the slide deck itself and the original script, which is covered by a Creative Commons license...of course.

Title card for The Weekly Pop Episode 6


Here we go:

So for those that follow my blog, they know that back in April, I delivered the Liberal Arts Lecture.  This next series of videos in the Weekly Pop is my truncated version of that. And instead of doing the talking head thing, we’re just going to work through the slide deck.


Sounds good?  


This series that I’m about to give is a culmination of different interests that I’ve had over the years and mixes together many of them in its own Frankensteinian creation.  This lecture has been an opportunity for me to explain as much to myself as to you, how it all fits together.


We’re going to talk a lot today about things you may find very interesting:  monsters, comic books, movies, and stories of all kind. As the predominant storytelling species of earth, we LOVE stories; we are constantly looking for stories.  We read about them, we watch them, we look to social media to like them or comment and become a part of them. Stories are central to our identities--we each have a not just a story to tell but numerous stories from how our day was to how we survived high school to how we got to college to how we met our partners and many many more.  


But we’re going to also talk about something that many people find not so interesting.  Copyright--it’s boring and in fact, I think I already think a few readers have started to nod off.  


But as I’m hoping you’ll see by the time we’re done--copyright--as boring as it is--is important to understand and creates some rather strange situations in our world today.   So bear with me as we unpack copyright together, ok?


What is copyright?


Copyright Definition



Here’s the definition we can work with and by gawd is it wordy!  

"Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include the following categories:
  • literary works;
  • musical works, including any accompanying words;
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  • pantomimes and choreographic works;
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • sound recordings; and
  • architectural works.

In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work."  Source.

But it at least gives us some sense. We can see the areas where copyright is applied to and get a sense of its totality.


So, where did copyright come from in the United States?


Constitution



The first Copyright Act of 1791 was inspired by The Constitution: Article 1, Section 8 which says: “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”


So what this is saying, basically is that people who create things--written works or patents for inventions, should have certain exclusive rights to them for LIMITED TIMES.  


But why?

WHY?



Why would we limit the amount of time that one has exclusive right to a work?


Well, like many things in Western tradition, it comes down to two sides; a dueling tension.  


On one side, you have the “Natural rights” argument.


This stems from the tradition of John Locke.


Also known as the father of liberalism.  We can credit him with how we think of ideas today when we call them intellectual property.  


The Natural Rights view is framed as such, when watered down:


Ideas spring into an individual's mind and therefore are a private and intellectual property.


This idea-property or intellectual property represents potential wealth.


As an individual with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, you are owed payment for anyone using your ideas.


This, of course, is a cornerstone of modern society.  If you create something that has some level of creativity, it is yours to do with as you please.  

BUT



BUT!!!!


We also have the Utilitarian view, which says:


Individual creations are really, creations of culture.  That is, the individual's ideas are drawn from the culture in which they inhabit.  


If there is no culture, then the individual is not able to make said intellectual creation.  


Therefore, ideas are and should be part of the common good for all to benefit from.  


Now, this isn't entirely off in some ways.  We see historically, time and again, new ideas, new patents, new technological breakthroughs, often happen repeatedly at the same time, wherein several different people come up with the same creation.


This concept is called: multiple discovery.


Now, there are different people we can credit for the utilitarian view, but in the US, I'm going to give a nod to Thomas Jefferson.  

Thomas Jefferson To Isaac McPherson, 1813



In a letter to Isaac McPherson in August 1813, Jefferson included this piece that gets to the crux of the utilitarian view:  


"...it is the action of the thinking power called an Idea….he who recieves an idea from me, recieves instruction himself, without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, recieves light without darkening me. that ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benvolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point...incapable of confinement, or exclusive appropriation. inventions then cannot in nature be a subject of property."


So when we see "limited time"--it's because of these two tensions--the natural rights view and the utilitarian view are at odds, and this is how it was resolved.  It becomes part of the culture after a limited time.


So that raises the question, what do we consider limited times?   If someone says to you, this offer has a limited time, how long do you usually think you’ve got?


In an age of Amazon, it may be minutes, right?  How long did copyright originally last back the 1700s?


14 years



14 years and then you could renew it for another 14.  So if you created an original work, you could profit from that original work how you saw fit for 28 years in total.  


Does that seem like a reasonably limited time?


Ok, so how long does copyright extend to today?  


Today’s Copyright Length



So that means, my copyright on this presentation deck would expire at the earliest--assuming I lived another 30 years--sometime around 2118.  


This term, “limited time” is so strange.  I mean if I’m 10-15-20 years dead, my limited time on Earth has long past its expiration date but the copyright for something I created somehow continues for decades?  


How did it get to this?  Well, largely, this has been a result of publishers and other creative industries lobbying Congress to extend copyright for so long--because generally, the publishers, not the authors, are the ones that are profiting for decades after the creator’s death.  


What happens after a copyright expires?  What does that mean? It goes to the public domain.  


Public Domain



Creative works that anyone can use in any manner, including in order to repurpose into new creative works.  


What are some works in the public domain?


Here are some other examples.  


But is there anything between Copyright and Public Domain or is all work doomed to be locked away for upwards a century or more?  

Creative Commons


There is. The creator has a variety of rights and one of them is the ability to grant licenses for their works.  One of the most powerful and popular licenses out there is the Creative Commons license.


You might have noticed this icon at the beginning of my slide deck. I’ve given my work a Creative Commons license, which means that others are welcome to use it as they see fit with just 2 stipulations:


  1. They give me credit as the source.
  2. They also have to make sure it has a CC license.  


Those are 2 of the possible choices you can use with a Creative Commons licenses, but at its core, it allows creators to designate their work, free to use by others.  We’ll come back to that towards the end of this presentation but it’s worth laying the groundwork here.


Ok--thank you for bearing with me through that portion of the presentation...I realize technical jargon is not fun for anyone


But we’ve made it through that part of it and now can get to talking about more interesting things--I hope.


What we just talked about is how a work goes from being owned by an individual to being part of the culture.  When a work enters the public domain, we consider it becoming part of the cultural commons. In this case, we call it the commons, just like we would label an area of land (such as the Lynn or Salem Commons)--it is there for everyone--or at least should be.  Creators can also choose to put their work into the commons before their copyright expires.


So what we’ve done here is identified a tension between


Copyright vs. Commons



Personal interest of the individual creator and the public interest of the culture.  The argument isn’t whether there should be copyright to protect creators, but the degree as we have seen, raise some significant concerns.


Authors Not In The Public Domain



After all, here are some authors that aren’t in the public domain--how many of us were alive when they were in?


For those that have taken American or World literature, you’ll notice that many of these are well-established, but clearly, long-dead authors. But they are still locked behind copyright.


Commons



Right, so we can think of the public domain as the commons; an intellectual space where we are free to draw upon, use, alter and reproduce the creative works of the past into the present.  And this can be done in many interesting ways.  


It can give us such fascinating works as:


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; a book that intersplices the writings of Jane Austen with an entirely new plot element: zombies.  


Ok, for some of us, that might not be the most glowing example of the importance of the commons.  Maybe you're not into pale, mindless, humanoids groaning their way through life--or maybe you’re just not a fan of zombies.  


While that’s not a glowing example, this one is.  


The Iliad



Let’s start with a little-known work called, The Iliad.


Someone we call "Homer" wrote The Iliad and just like sequels are popular today, he follows it up with The Odyssey--two epic works that have been super influential in Western literature. While at the time, he thought he was covering some epic history, today, we see his work as historical fiction in the form of epic poetry.


But he does produce an enormously creative and popular work.  It's such a popular work that everyone riffs of it for thousands of years.  


There are many examples, but I'm going to stick to the highlights reel for this presentation


Oresteia



In the 400s BCE, Aeschylus produces The Oresteia trilogy--yes, a trilogy--they were popular back then too--and he uses characters from The Iliad and tells a completely new story.  Back then, they called it the literary tradition and today, for some reason, we call it fan fiction.


Aeneid/Map of Italy



Jump ahead further to first century BCE, Rome, and Virgil writes The Aeneid, which is its own epic stand-alone plotline in the world of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey--you could think of it as similar to Star Wars: Rogue One.  It's not needed, but there was still a desire to tell it.


Dante/Chaucer/Shakespeare



Later on in the 14th century, Dante includes Odysseus (from the Odyssey) in the 8th circle of hell).


Geoffrey Chaucer also wrote--or I should say adapted Troilus and Criseyde in the 14th century from someone else's writings. This poem focused on the titular characters and how they are pulled into the politics and violence that consume The Iliad.  


Even William Shakespeare fanfics his way in by also adapting Chaucer's work in his play Troilus and Cressida in 1602--yeah, I totally just said that Shakespeare “fanfics”.  My literature colleagues are either twitching with anger, ready to get the pitchforks or they want to give me a fist bump. The grammarians among them are a bit appalled that I just turned Fan fiction into a verb.  But I digress.


If it feels like everyone is borrowing from everyone--it's because they are.  That is the history of storytelling in a nutshell.


Those Epics These Days...



It's over 2000 years later and we are still retelling the stories of the Iliad and The Odyssey; sometimes we're revisiting the stories themselves such as in the cases of books and films such as:


Books
  • Robert Graves's Homer's Daughter (1955)
  • Colleen McCullough's The Song of Troy (1998)
  • Elizabeth Cook's Achilles (2002)
  • Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad (2005)
  • Lindsay Clarke's The War at Troy (2005)
  • Lindsay Clarke's Return from Troy (2006)
  • David Gemmell's Troy Series (2005-2008)
  • Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey (2011)

Film
  • The Odyssey (1997)
  • Helen of Troy (2003)
  • Troy (2004)

Comics
  • The Odyssey by Gareth Hinds (2010)
  • Age of Bronze by Eric Shanower (1998-2013)

These stories attempt to retell the Iliad and Odyssey in Ancient Greece.


These Epics, These Days



But then of course, there's loads of fiction that decides to modernize, rift, or use Homer's work as the basis for new works:


Books/Comics
  • James Joyce's Ulysses (1922)
  • Daniel Wallace's Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions (1998)
  • Dan Simmons' Ilium/Olympos (2004/2006)
  • Matt Fraction’s ODY-C (2014-present)

Films
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  • Big Fish (2003)

Of course, these don’t include specific episodes of TV or comics that take on Homer’s work in some fashion.  Do you know where I first encountered The Odyssey when I was younger?


I learned about the Odyssey through Ducktales, long before I ever encountered it as a book to read.  


SO WHAT?



So why am I talking about some storyteller from 3000 years ago?  Who cares? Well, this was a popular story--one that we came back to many times before.  And we’ve done that with many stories in our past. I could have chosen stories from the Bible, Dante, Beowulf, Shakespeare, or Edgar Allan Poe or Sherlock Holmes.  


We see these stories told back time and again.  We revisit stories for the same reason because


"You could not step twice into the same river."


Plato, Cratylus,


Every time we come back to a story, it is different, we are different.  When we re-read or retell stories, we are thinking about how both have changed since the last time we encountered them.  That’s exactly what we’ve been doing for millennia.


In that vein, remakes and sequels are not a  sign of unoriginality but a sign of engaging with our past to consider and look at what we may have missed in the past or how we make sense of those stories in the present.  I find retellings of past stories fascinating and exciting because they pick things apart that we likely missed or make us think about them in different ways. These are as rich and creative works as those that don’t directly call upon such works.  


But again, why?  Why does this matter in the context of copyright and commons?  Well, here’s the first big point to consider.


Point #1



We can engage with past stories in creative retelling only when they are part of the commons--that is, public domain.  


This is important because it is a dialogue with and reflection about our past and reconciliation with our present.  It’s a powerful opportunity to understand how the two fit together. But that only happens if we are able to freely use such previous works.   


Consider this--imagine if you are writing your autobiography at age 75, but you could only draw on your memories and experiences from when you were 25 years old.  How effectively could you tell your story?


Right now, we can draw upon tales, but we can only do it with works that have been created before 1923 or with creators’ works who have died before 1948.  That is, most creators will never get the chance to play with works that were created in their lifetime or even before they were born. The only exceptions are when the copyright holders grant permission and usually then, it’s within limited and narrow ranges to which the copyright holder believes will not hurt their intellectual property.


And I think that’s a loss for us, creatively and culturally.  It denies an opportunity to creatively explore our immediate past and engage with what it might mean.


Ok, I’m going to end here and we’ll meet back soon to tackle the next part of this lecture.  


All right, that’s all for today.  What did you find useful or interesting about today’s episode?    I’d love to hear them so post them in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter-- @leaton01


See you soon!  Keep popping; keep thinking!




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