Monday, February 18, 2008

Madeleine L'Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time and many other works wrote:

“When I start working on a book, which is usually several years and several books before I start to write it, I am somewhat like a French peasant cook. There are several pots on the back of the stove, and as I go by during the day’s work, I drop a carrot in one, an onion in another, a chunk of meat in another. When it comes time to prepare the meal, I take the pot which is most nearly full and bring it to the front of the stove.

So it is with writing. There are several pots on those back burners. An idea for a scene goes into one, a character into another, a description of a tree in the fog into another. When it comes time to write, I bring forward the pot which has the most in it. The dropping in of ideas is sometimes quite conscious; sometimes it happens without my realizing it. I look, and something has been added which is just what I need, but I don’t remember when it was added.

When it is time to start work, I look at everything in the pot, sort, arrange, think about character and story line. Most of this part of work is done consciously, but then there comes a moment of unselfconsciousness, of letting go and serving the work.”

Here she describes the act of writing as something that is done both consciously, but also unconsciously or what she calls "a moment of unselfconsciousness" which means "letting go and serving the work."

Sister Wendy Beckett, the narrator of several BBC documentaries on the history of art, told Bill Moyers in an interview that "all great art is a visual form of prayer, although the artist may not know it." Often Sister Wendy would stand before a painting in the National Gallery in London or elsewhere and talk about how a painting went beyond the artist - if it was only just an extension of the artist's imagination, an artist's invention, it would be interesting, but it would not be art. Art transcends the artist, art is a collaboration with the Holy Spirit and great art is greater than the artist. The art is greater because it is true.

The artist serves the work, not the other way around. In fact, much of the artist's adventure is made up of letting go, of giving up control, of setting it free as much as a mother raises her child to be independent.

J.K. Rowling has been making statements of late describing her relationship with the work, her series of books on Harry Potter. But she doesn't use artistic words to describe her relationship with the work. For example, J.K. Rowling has consistently described the creation of her work as her invention. "I spent a lot of time inventing the rules for the magical world so that I knew the limits of magic. Then I had to invent the different ways wizards could accomplish certain things. Some of the magic in the books is based on what people used to believe really worked, but most of it is my invention." Over and over again we find Rowling describing her creative process as though she was an inventor.

We can't really imagine L'Engle or C.S. Lewis or even J.R.R. Tolkien describing themselves in a similar way. In fact, when you read their commentaries of their own works, they seem to relate to the work as though it all ready existed and they merely found it. They are adventurers who have been to those "undiscovered countries" and have returned to bear witness to what they saw.

This afternoon at home, I came across a book called "The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia," which was published in 2006. When it uses the word "Encyclopedia," it means it. It is a big, coffee table sized book, 735 pages long with a CD included that contains references, cross references, and cross-cross references of every song, musician, idea, footnote, more footnotes, and even more references to anything written or sung by Bob Dylan in forty years. And it was written before Bob's Radio Show went on the air - which will end up being a Volume Two all by itself. It is an interpretation of Dylan's works, a glossary and explanation of terms, references, titles, objects, writers, personalities, biographies, places, events - the list goes on and on about what could be said is an "invented" persona called "Bob Dylan." Put together by one Dylan expert, it is that one man's catalogue - his interpretation of what matters most in Bob Dylan's life and career.

An entire book - in fact, an entire library still cannot contain or explain the mystery that is this "invented" persona called "Bob Dylan." Is he real - or is he invented?

The mystery has fueled several generations of speculation about his music as many have tried to solve the riddles that abound in his works. His current radio series just adds to that mystery. Every so often he grants an interview or he writes a book and instead of having it all explained, he just produces even more mystery. When asked about that by 60 Minutes a few years ago, Dylan merely smiled and said, "It goes back to that destiny thing. I mean, I made a bargain with it, you know, long time ago. And I'm holding up my end … to get where I am now." Ed Bradley then asks him, who did he make the bargain with? "With the Chief Commander," Dylan replied. "In this earth and in the world we can't see."

Since the release of Deathly Hallows there has been a "powering down" in the HP reading community regarding discussions and musings concerning her work. Podcasts have announced that they are ending. Discussion Boards are dormant. It's as though the air has gone out of the tires. While people are still discussing the works of Lewis, Tolkien, and even Shakespeare himself, J.K. Rowling has made it quite clear that if there's going to be any official explanations about her work, they are going to come directly from her, the inventor.

She went on a U.S. Tour where she spent considerable time "explaining" the works to agreeable children and fans, staying away from more in-depth interviews with those who would seek to explore the deeper meanings of her work (like John Granger, for example) - and how much of it she knows herself and how much she actually doesn't know. It's as if she doesn't want to enter the realm of discussing the process of her "inventions" as it may reveal, as Dylan has, and that no one can completely invent "art" out of nothing, especially when it comes to literary works.

Why is this?

It appears that there is now a full fledge war breaking out over traditional publishing methods and the global forms of communication now available through the net. This is true not only with literary works, but music as well, as we learned recently from Paul McGuinness, manager of U2, who offered quite a tirade recently against iTunes and other electronic forms of music dissemination. He wants to slice up the pie and get a percentage out of every bit of the pie. If you buy a song on iTunes, he wants there to be charge for every single use of that song - be it burned to a CD for you own use, loaded on to your iPod for your own use, or saved on your computer for your own use. Anything less, Paul says, is "stealing."

Copyright laws are not necessarily international, but trademark laws can be - and so all of J.K. Rowling "inventions" are trademarked or branded, which - like Mickey Mouse - can be controlled by the corporation. The Golden Arches are the Golden Arches in Peoria as well as Peking. What has been true for corporate brands now seems to be pursued by corporate publishing entities seeking the same branding for literature, the written word.

The words themselves are brands.

Now it's not just music or images or brands that corporations are charging can be "stolen" - but now it could be actual words. The words themselves are branded. No wonder J.K. Rowling calls herself an inventor rather than a writer.

Several years ago, TimeWarner hit websites very hard about using images from the Harry Potter films, threatening webmasters with lawsuits if they used the images. Disney had all ready been quite successful in having its images removed from websites that were not controlled by them. Warner Brothers was following in their footsteps and then, suddenly, it all stopped. It was as though a new marketing scheme was now being employed where - instead of threatening lawsuits against enthusiastic fans - they would actually encourage the use as another way to market the films and products. They have now mastered that by cultivating the webmasters to be "insiders" in the Warner Brothers marketing scheme. Other corporations have followed suit.

Well, except for one webmaster: Steve Vander Ark, who did not apparently play along so well. He received enormous support for his Harry Potter Lexicon - so much so that J.K. Rowling bestowed on him one of her early Fan Site Awards and talked about how much that site helped her in the writing of the books.

But when he went to publish the Lexicon in traditional print, it turned out that Warner Brothers had laid out a minefield with its trademarking of the "words" from the books and not just the images from the films. If he used the words, "invented" by J.K.Rowling and published those "words" he was stealing. In copyright law you can use "quotes" in your works with attribution, but now with trademark law being applied to intellectual property - even individual words, to use that word alone would be stealing that word. To publish an encyclopedia using trademark words would be an infringement on the inventor's control. Steve Vander Ark is now sued for using the trademarked words in his published but not-yet released Encyclopedia. His case is now being defended by the law center at the University of California Law School at Stanford.

What Time Warner seems to be banking on is that if the trademarking of intellectual property is upheld in the U.S. Courts, that the same came applied to the internet worldwide. Then it will not just be images that will be controlled - but actual words - and words are what really matters on the internet.

In order to have free speech one needs free words. If the words are trademarked, what will be free? Stanford, just up the road from Berkeley, seems to be paying attention. Are we?

Let's use one of J.K.Rowling's trademarked words to make the point. That word is Horcrux. According to the Harry Potter Lexicon, citing a "Diary" entry by J.K. Rowling on her website, a Horcrux "is the receptacle in which a wizard has hidden a fragment of his soul for the purposes of attaining immortality." It is considered evil and dark.

Is that not what the practice of trademarking words to control the intellectual property and its use is? Is it not a way to hide fragments of an artist's soul into those "words" for the purpose of attaining a different sort of immortality - a financial and controlling global immortality? A corporate immortality? Perhaps.

But at what cost to intellectual freedom of speech and expression? At what cost to the artistic creativity of generations to follow?

No longer could there be opinion pieces published in books on what constitutes a Horcrux or how Horcruxes are at work metaphorically in our culture or what a Horcrux™ might mean in the life of J.K. Rowling. Anything having to do with the writing about Horcruxes™, as in an encyclopedia or in a descriptive essay will be controlled by the "inventor" (formerly known as the author) in her vaguely-promised Scottish Book.

Let us recall again Madeleine L'Engle's description of the art of creating stories when she reminded us that "there comes a moment of unselfconsciousness, of letting go and serving the work." Serving the work and letting go spurs on more creativity and opens windows into the soul which inspires even more creativity.

It is anything but a Horcrux™.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

SAT. UPDATE: The Declaration of Steve Vander Ark, the author and webmaster of the Harry Potter Lexicon, is now available to read in its entirety online here. It makes for fascinating reading.

NYT opinion

A Tight Grip Can Choke Creativity
By Joe Nocera, New York Times

On Friday, a lawyer named Anthony Falzone filed his side’s first big brief in the case of Warner Bros. Entertainment and J. K. Rowling v. RDR Books. Mr. Falzone is employed by Stanford Law School, where he heads up the Fair Use Project, which was founded several years ago by Lawrence Lessig, perhaps the law school’s best-known professor. Mr. Falzone and the other lawyers at the Fair Use Project are siding with the defendant, RDR Books, a small book publisher based in Muskegon, Mich. As you can see from the titans who have brought the suit, RDR Books needs all the legal firepower it can muster.

As you can probably also see, the case revolves around Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling, of course, is the creator of the Harry Potter series — “one of the most successful writers the world has ever known,” crowed Neil Blair of the Christopher Little Literary Agency, which represents her. Warner Brothers holds the license to the Harry Potter movies. Of the two plaintiffs, though, Ms. Rowling appears to be the one driving the litigation.

“I feel as though my name and my works have been hijacked, against my wishes, for the personal gain and profit of others and diverted from the charities I intended to benefit,” she said in a declaration to the court.

And what perfidious act of “hijacking” has RDR Books committed? It planned to publish a book by Steven Vander Ark, who maintains a fansite called the Harry Potter Lexicon. The Lexicon publishes Harry Potter essays, finds Harry Potter mistakes, explains Harry Potter terminology, devises Harry Potter timelines and does a thousand other things aimed at people who can’t get enough Harry Potter. It’s a Harry Potter encyclopedia for obsessive fans.

So long as the Lexicon was a free Web site, Ms. Rowling looked kindly upon it. But when Mr. Vander Ark tried to publish part of the Lexicon in book form — and (shudder!) to make a profit — Ms. Rowling put her foot down. She claims that she wants to publish her own encyclopedia someday and donate the proceeds to charity — and a competing book by Mr. Vander Ark would hurt the prospects for her own work.

But more than that, she is essentially claiming that the decision to publish — or even to allow — a Harry Potter encyclopedia is hers alone, since after all, the characters in her books came out of her head. They are her intellectual property. And in her view, no one else can use them without her permission.

“There have been a huge number of companion books that have been published,” Mr. Blair said. “Ninety-nine percent have come to speak to us. In every case they have made changes to ensure compliance. They fall in line.” But, he added: “These guys refused to contact us. They refused to answer any questions. They refused to show us any details.”

They fall in line. There, in that one sentence, lies the reason Mr. Falzone and his colleagues have agreed to help represent RDR Books. And it’s why Mr. Lessig decided to start the Fair Use Project in the first place.

It’s an odd twist that this dispute centers around a book, because ever since the recording industry first sued Napster, most of the big legal battles over copyright have centered on the Internet. The lawsuit Viacom filed against YouTube last year to prevent people from posting snippets of Viacom’s copyrighted television shows is the most obvious recent example.

But if you look a little further back, you’ll see that for a long time now, copyright holders have made a series of concerted efforts to extend copyright protection and make it an ever-more powerful instrument of control.

More than a century ago, copyrights lasted for 14 years — and could be extended another 14 if the copyright holder petitioned for an extension. Today, corporate copyrights last for 95 years, while individuals retain copyrights for 70 years after their deaths. The most recent extension of copyright, passed by Congress in 1998, was nicknamed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, because Disney’s lobbyists were intent on keeping Mickey Mouse from falling into the public domain — and on preserving billions in profits for Disney.

At the same time, though, copyright holders have tried to impose rules on the rest of us — through threats and litigation — that were never intended to be part of copyright law. They sue to prevent rappers from taking samples of copyrighted songs to create their own music. Authors’ estates try to deprive scholars of their ability to reprint parts of books or articles because they disapprove of the scholar’s point of view. Mr. Lessig likes to cite a recent, absurd case where a mother posted a video of her baby dancing to Prince’s song “Let’s Go Crazy” on YouTube — and Universal Music promptly demanded that YouTube remove the video because it violated the copyright. Have these efforts had — as we like to say in the news business — a chilling effect? You bet they have.

About a decade ago, Mr. Lessig decided to fight back. His core belief is that copyright protection, as he put it to me, “was meant to foster creativity, not to stifle it” — yet that is how it is now being used. He fought the Mickey Mouse Preservation Act all the way to the Supreme Court (he lost). He founded Creative Commons, which is, in a sense, an alternative form of copyright, allowing creators to grant far more rights to others than the traditional copyright system. And he started the Fair Use Project to push back against copyright hogs like J. K. Rowling.

No one is saying that anyone can simply steal the work of others. But the law absolutely allows anyone to create something new based on someone else’s art. This is something the Internet has made dramatically easier — which is part of the reason we’re all so much more aware of copyright than we used to be. But it has long been true for writers, filmmakers and other artists. That’s what “fair use” means.

And that is what is being forgotten as copyright holders try to tighten their grip. Documentary-film makers feel this particularly acutely. My friend Alex Gibney, who directed the recent film “Taxi to the Dark Side,” about torture, tried to get Fox to license him a short clip from the television series “24” to illustrate a point one of his talking heads was making about how the show glamorized torture. Fox denied his request. Mr. Gibney, a fair-use absolutist, used it anyway — but many filmmakers would have backed away.

Which is also why the Harry Potter Lexicon case is so important. For decades, fair use has been thought to extend to the publication of companion books that build on the oeuvre of someone else — so long as the new work isn’t simply a rehash of the original. There are dozens of companion books to the Narnia chronicles, for instance, and the works of J. R. R. Tolkien.

What Ms. Rowling is saying, however, is that her control of Harry Potter is so all-encompassing that only she gets to decide the terms under which a companion book is allowable. She can talk all she wants about charities that will be deprived if she loses this case, but this is really a power grab. RDR Books should not have to “fall into line” to publish the Lexicon. Ms. Rowling is claiming a right that, if granted, will hurt us all.

Read the rest here.