Universities, John Edwards and the Entertainment-Copyright Complex
May 30, 2005 | 9:27 pm
Had Nikita Khrushchev really banged his shoe against a desk at the U.N. in October 1960? The spring before, missiles had downed an American U-2 spy plane deep in Soviet territory, and Khrushchev was now waging the Cold War in full fury after a delegate from the Philippines accused the USSR of “swallowing up” Eastern Europe. Witnesses could not agree whether or not the shoe had hit the desk. But something else was clear on a grander level. When Dwight Eisenhower gave his farewell address in early 1961, Washington was undeniably fixated on defeating the Russians. Many in Eisenhower’s place would have left office while simply mouthing the usual platitudes in favor of A Strong Defense.
Instead, however, although a retired general, Eisenhower warned of the need to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” More than a few Democrats–I’m one–could appreciate the Eisenhower’s principles and perspicacity here. Ike saw a need for the military but did not want it to dominate American life. Eisenhower was seeking a middle ground by the standards of the time, and I wonder how he would have felt today about a different complex–the Entertainment-Copyright Complex. Hollywood’s copyright zealots own Washington, as shown by their massive campaign donations and their sleazy legislative initiatives. Someday could the Entertainment-Copyright Complex own academia as well?
No, the Motion Picture Association of America isn’t exactly appointing law school deans yet. But academics who protested Pentagon-funded research in past decades would do well to ponder the ultimate role of the Entertainment-Copyright Complex in society as a whole and on the campus in particular. The mass media, in line with a built-in conflict of interest as copyright owners, have mostly kept Americans in the dark.
Eight realities and possibilities
Still, here are eight realities and possibilities for academics and others to ponder about the complex:
1. The destructive political dominance of Hollywood over Silicon Valley and even the powerful telecom industry, which enjoys revenues many times higher than those of the content providers. America’s techno-giants are not the only ones harmed. Just like the more gung-ho members of the Military-Industrial Complex, Hollywood wants national priorities artificially distorted in its favor at the expense of innovation and the small guy. Hollywood was hardly the sole cause of the dotcom crash, but by contributing to the risks of investing in high-tech startups, its lawyer and campaign donors didn’t help. Never mind that broadband was the future. Entertainment lobbyists like Jack Valenti, then CEO of the MPAA, feared that it would let people pirate movies faster. Hollywood donors responded accordingly and apparently haven’t stopped. Just one producer, with or without the MPAA’s copyright policies in mind, gave more than $900,000 to John Edwards’ political action committee early in the last president campaign. No explanation came from either Edwards or the donor, in spite of efforts to elicit one. Could someone have nicely reminded the producer–with a career dependent on the goodwill of companies such as Time Warner–that donations to Edwards would be a career-enhancer?
2. An outrage in Spain, where a university lecturer lost his job because he insisted on giving a speech in favor of legitimate uses of file sharing. A blog headline in a way harkened back to peace protests during the Cold War: “Why corporate cash shouldn’t fund academic research.” A preview of the distant future at a U.S. university when the MPAA and related organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America can destroy the careers of law professors? Don’t be so fast in dismissing the possibility. James Boyle, now a law professor at Duke but then at American University in Washington, D.C., had his career threatened by none other than Bruce Lehman, Bill Clinton’s cyberspace-law czar who paved the way for the Hollywood-bought copyright legislation of the Clinton era. This is no mere rumor. An article about the incident even appeared in the Washington Times.
3. The possibility that Hollywood millionaires and billionaires could band together to make substantial gifts to law schools dealing with entertainment law–raising the question of whether American professors in the future may lose their jobs if they stray too far from the Hollywood line. We’re not necessarily talking about the present, but very much about the need for continued vigilance. American law has already reached the point where a prize-winning civil rights documentary must be withdrawn from the market because the copyright-related costs were too high. Do we really want professors to be intimidated to teach the Hollywood line? Duke received a million-dollar anonymous donation from a white hat in the copyright debate, and it is not difficult to imagine the other side doing the same at other schools. A million, in fact, is chump change to entertainment billionaires, who could easily outbid well-meaning foundations. Meanwhile, as shown by the American Association of University Presses’ hostility toward Google Print, university campuses certainly have their own bastions of copyright zealotry. Could it eventually expand to law schools?
4. The arrival of now-Prof. John Edwards, beneficiary of massive contributions from Entertainment-Copyright Complex as noted, at the University of North Carolina to set up an anti-poverty center. While in Washington, Prof. Edwards sat on a Senate committee dealing with intellectual property questions. But not a syllable passes through the Senator’s lips on the topic of copyright outageous like the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. If the poverty center is like its founder, there might not be any serious examination of the threat that the Entertainment-Copyright Complex poses to Poverty Fighter Number One–education. Why must Prof. Edwards be mute on copyright issues? Moreover, suppose his wife’s health problems worsen and he decides to forego another presidential run and instead build an academic career at UNC, maybe even someday as dean of the law school.
5. The concerted efforts of the American Entertainment-Copyright Complex to squeeze as much money as it can from the rest of the world, including impoverished Third World countries, through anti-consumer copyright strategies.
6. The fact that someday, not soon but perhaps eventually, the Entertainment-Copyright might actually cause a war or at least help cause one or prolong one. What could you say when Washington hired Hilary Rosen, at the time the CEO of the RIAA, as a consultant to help rewrite Iraqi copyright law? Inflicting our laws on the rest of the world is hardly the shortest path to lasting peace.
7. The steady erosion of free speech in the United States and many other countries, created by enlarging the control of copyright owners over their content. Remember, Jack Valenti wants copyright owners to control their properties forever, short of a day. It is hard to determine just what a Valenti-esque society would be like–whether individual heirs or corporations would own the content. Either way, the results would be ugly. Give business and the rich people too much power, blur the distinction between the public and the private in a corrupt way, and over the very long term, the path is open to fascism. The existence of media monopolies only magnifies the possible dangers.
8. The Hollywood-encouraged creation of Digital Rights Management schemes, which could potentially be exploited by dictators both in the United States and elsewhere. Industry and government can use DRM to limit access to information to those forced to pay a price in either money or privacy. Certainly some members of the Copyright-Entertainment Complex value their privacy. If you doubt this, just try to contact the Hilary Rosen through the email address associated HilaryRosen.com, registered in the name of her partner.
Do the above paragraphs mean that Jack Valenti, a War World II veteran who fought the forces of Hitler and Mussolini, is a fascist or communist–given the sleazy industry-government connections and the command-driven approach for important parts of the U.S. economy? Or that Hilary Rosen is? Or maybe Bruce Lehman, who, during his encounter toward James Boyle, might as well be wearing jackboots? I don’t think so, although Lehman shows signs of another ideology, DMCAism.
Even I myself am willing to see some usefulness in the Entertainment-Copyright Complex. Like Hitler, the Soviets wanted their own lebensraum at neighboring countries’ expense; and, however Strangelovian, the B-52s of the Military-Industrial Complex did serve a purpose. Similarly I believe in the need for fair, sensible copyright law. I can even understand the usefulness of a legal system enabling Hollywood studios to amass enough money for Titanic-style films, at least with less piggish paychecks for the stars and moguls. In future years, you’ll be able to use a variety of sophisticated software modules to create your own Titanic and Kate Winslet, but the time isn’t here yet despite some impressive developments reported in J.D. Lasica’s Darknet. So for the moment, if you like blockbusters, yes, the Entertainment-Copyright Complex serves a purpose for you right now
The Complex has other virtues. Along with other elements of mass American culture, U.S. films have even proven to be a unifier of sorts. None other than the dictator of North Korea is passionate fan of U.S. movies, and his son even sneaked into Japan to try to take in an offshoot of Disneyland. Such a fixation could inhibit a future urge to nuke Tokyo. The rule, as suggested by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, is that countries with McDonald’s franchises don’t go to war with each other. Perhaps U.S. taxpayers should help starving North Koreans to buy Big Macs at a special Mickey D’s in Pyongyang.
Compared to certain other countries, America lags in such areas as human rights and freedom of the press, and, yes, greater cultural diversity could help on the Internet and in movie theaters; but the world could do worse than to watch Titanic and visit Disneyland together. If nothing else, junk movies notwithstanding, Hollywood over time has come out with its share of classics in the vein of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Citizen Kane.
Buying silence from Mr. Smith?
The problem is Hollywood in recent years has successfully thrown millions even in the direction of politicians depicted as Real Life Mr. Smiths. The self-made John Edwards is a prime example as founder of the anti-poverty center at the University of North Carolina. I had hoped that in his post-Washington days, Prof. Edward could finally take a stand against the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. Prof. Edwards’ wife once studied to be an English teacher, and both husband and wife can surely understand what it would have meant if the Bono Act hadn’t passed and if schoolchildren could now download The Great Gatsby for free off the Internet. And of course, Prof. Edwards is the son of a textile worker and let his office represent him in Washington as “the people’s senator.”
Just the same, this “populist” ignored my question submitted during one of those podcasts where he is supposed to try to answer “each and every” query. Three Carolina bloggers, Ed Cone in Greensboro, Brian Russell of AudioActivism.org, and Eric Muller at the UNC Law School, have written of Edwards’ puzzling silence. And yet it goes on. Does this mean that Edwards does not really care what the UNC community thinks? That the UNC-Edwards match is just a mating between a prestige-oriented university and a sexy politician who, via his donations to set up the center, purchased Chapel Hill’s good name? It does not help that months after the announcement, the center’s Web page has yet to list its first staff hiring–suggesting that the poverty center might be mostly a clubby PR gimmick for Edwards and UNC.
Hollywood’s Manchurian candidate?
By speaking out on Bono and the DMCA and the like, Prof. Edwards could show he cared more about education and anti-poverty efforts than about Valenti-style lobbyists and political donors. Within the limits of academic standards, the center could highlight the relationship between Draconian copyright laws and the diminished opportunities that the poor would enjoy for education and civic participation. The world would know that he was not Hollywood’s Manchurian Candidate, quietly biding his time. U.S. copyright law does not revolve around Prof. Edwards and UNC, but his speaking out on copyright, with a school-and-library perspective, would send a message to other prominent politicians in the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton, his main rival, just might follow, along with John Kerry and others. If Sen. Clinton did not, then Prof. Edwards’ forthrightness on copyright would be one way to distinguish the two leading Democratic prospects for ’08.
More than a few times in his life, Prof. Edwards has framed political questions in terms of, “Is it right?” This is a chance to apply the same principle and along the way elevate his national stature. Right now I can think of another ex-politician, Jack Glickman, former director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government, who sold out to Hollywood to become Jack Valenti’s successor. Given enough time and money, people like Glickman may work to sway academia the way the Entertainment-Copyright Complex has corrupted Washington. Meanwhile I have already outlined what might follow in time if permanent copyright and other atrocities happened and America stopped being America. Let the firing of the Spanish lecturer and Bruce Lehman’s bullying of James Boyle serve as warnings against a society dominated by thuggish black suits from Hollywood and politicians and bureaucrats willing to do the complex’s bidding. Politicians like Prof. Edwards could help by acting like Eisenhower instead of Glickman.
Update, 6:35 a.m., June 27: Continuing to revise.