Saturday 26 February 2011
Presumed Guilty ☀
Mr Turow also wears another hat, as president of the Authors Guild, and it was in that capacity that he and two others recently wrote an op ed in the New York Times called “Would the Bard Have Survived the Web?”. In my role as both author and academic, this seemed right up my street. I read the article with great interest and then with mounting confusion. The argument is a little tangled but in effect it analogises the walls of Elizabethan theatres (and the doorkeepers who stood outside those walls, demanding payment from theatregoers) to the restrictions on access provided by copyright law. Just as Shakespeare depended on his cultural paywalls, so our cultural creators depend on copyright law. But copyright is under threat, it seems, both from the technology of the internet itself and from a group of miscreants I will get to in a second. The article describes the eventual destruction of Shakespeare’s theatre by a repressive state that wanted to silence the dramatists, and analogises that suppression to the effects of the internet on commercial authors’ speech today. It concludes by wondering whether Shakespeare, and Elizabethan playwrights in general, would have survived the web. The authors give a passing plug to Senate hearings which appear to be devoted to reviving a bill called Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act (COICA), which would let the government shut down websites around the world if they are accused of having illicitly copied content on them. After all, Shakespeare needs our help.
The argument is so strange it is hard to know where to begin. The problem is not simply that Shakespeare flourished without copyright protection for his work. It is that he made liberal use of the work of others in his own plays in ways that would today almost certainly generate a lawsuit. Like many readers, I found myself wondering whether Shakespeare would have survived copyright, never mind the web. Certainly, the dense interplay of unidentified quotation, paraphrase and plot lifting that characterizes much of Elizabethan theatre would have been very different; imagine what jazz would sound like if musicians had to pay for every fragment of another tune they work into a solo.
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