April 27, 2009  ·  Lessig

Looks like novelist Mark Helprin is back. You might remember that in 1997, Helprin published an oped in the New York Times praising, as Peter Jaszi put it, perpetual copyright terms “on the installment plan.” (Helprin insists he doesn’t support perpetual terms; he just likes extending terms now to assure that grandchildren get the benefit of an authors work.) At the time, I invited the lessig-wiki community to pen a response. And amazing even to me, an extraordinary response they penned.

NPR retells the story today because apparently Helprin has a book which will be released on the 28th — “Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto.” (Note: if you buy Helprin’s book from that link, Creative Commons will get the money.) The NPR page includes an interview with me (in my flu-ridden, 102 degree fever state, I’m terrified to listen to it again). But I am eager to read the book, and even more eager to read the review on the wiki.

  • http://dooooooom.blogspot.com/ Ian Brown

    What high praise — Creative Commons “threatens the future of civilization itself” apparently. ROFL.

  • Mal

    Yeah, Mark Helprin: good novelist, but loves to provoke the liberals and will go to any extremes to do it. I once heard him defend the banning of “Ulysses” as pornography to an audience New York Public Library members. I’d take anything he says with a grain of salt; it’s just more conservative political theater and hard to take seriously.

  • Rick

    Yep. Heard the interview on NPR a few days ago in the background while surfing the net. Sure caught my attention. Apparently Halperin’s belief is that the only lasting value of his works that might benefit is descendents is the financial.
    Does he write zingers for Cheney?

  • http://www.cawtech.freeserve.co.uk Alan Crowe

    Helprin argues by analogy from rights in property to rights in copy: since there is no such thing as lease-hold, copyright should be perpetual.

    Helprin is not content to overlook lease-hold, he also ignores tied housing and the enclosure of agriculture land between 1760 and 1820. Sometimes land is owned in common, not individually. Do your heirs have the right to the house and land that you paid for, and worked on and for? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

    Property rights are an aspect of commercial law and they have a specific purpose: prosperity. If, in 1989 it had been the communist East Germany that was rich and the capitialist West Germany that was poor, we would have abandoned individual ownership in favour of common ownership. Perhaps that is an absurd counterfactual to contemplate. We must have some system to ensure the the marginal costs of production are met and property rights and market prices are the only system that has stood the test of time.

    But what of the non-recurring costs of production? How do we pay our artists and our inventors? Are they to have a recurring fee linked to the volume of production, or are they to have a lump sum, a fee for the work done? Can we have a utopia in which our favourite artists are free of the tyranny of the day-job and may create full time, unfettered by copyrights on existings works that they wish to improve, rework, remix, play-off and adapt? Probably not, but the problem we face is clear enough: construct that system of commercial law that best conduces to artist abundance.

    I envy Helprin his 1100 words of opinion in the New York Times. I am annoyed that he wasted them obfuscating the problem instead of trying to solve it. I will not be buying his book.

  • Rich

    Nice to have Prof. Lessig around to respond to clowns like Halprin. The best thing about the NY times piece is how he seems to think that people are going to be moved by the struggles of “the heirs of sylvia plath.” Maybe I’m too young, but I just don’t understand how Halprin’s arguments are convincing on any level – they just seem bizarre (“it might also be for the public good were Congress to allow the enslavement of foreign captives and their descendants”). This guy has one heck of a martyr complex.

    One other thing: why didn’t NPR put more lessig into the main piece? Surely this is an injustice that rivals the government’s thievery of the heirs of sylvia plath.

  • http://www.akabeforum.com Jone

    Property rights are an aspect of commercial law and they have a specific purpose: prosperity. If, in 1989 it had been the communist East Germany that was rich and the capitialist West Germany that was poor, we would have abandoned individual ownership in favour of common ownership. Perhaps that is an absurd counterfactual to contemplate. We must have some system to ensure the the marginal costs of production are met and property rights and market prices are the only system that has stood the test of time.

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