Friday, January 20, 2012

The Yippie Way of Ownership

The whole whoopee cushion of words over the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act got me thinking about Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.

Those two were the most pop-culture-savvy leaders of the group of agitprop rebels who promoted ‘free’ as a lifestyle a generation ago—the Yippies. But, even for them, it was not easy to say exactly what free meant.

Abbie’s first publication, a 1967 pamphlet called Fuck the System, proudly proclaimed the principle of free and open access: “Nothing in this manual is copyrighted. Anyone may reprint this information without permission. If you paid money for this manual you got screwed. It’s absolutely free because it’s yours. Think about it.” (Abbie later disclosed that, through a middleman, the government of New York City had actually paid the printing costs—proving that, then as now, ‘free’ sometimes requires that somebody else pick up the tab.)

In 1968, a year after Fuck the System came out, Abbie published Revolution for the Hell of it. He dedicated the book to “FREE.” He published the book under the pseudonym ‘Free.’ But the book wasn’t free: the hardcover price was $4.95 and the copyright was held by The Dial Press.

When Abbie published his 1971 primer on the art of getting stuff for free, he called it Steal This Book—but he didn’t really want readers to steal it. How do I know? Because he copyrighted Steal This Book in the name of Pirate Editions. Why copyright a book that tells you how to get things for free? Because Abbie was accused of piracy himself. His collaborator and all-around researcher, Izak Haber, called him out for stealing the work without compensation. (Though Haber is acknowledged in the book as a co-conspirator, he didn't feel that was enough, and you can read his account, “An American Dream: A True Yippie’s Sentimental Education or How Abbie Hoffman Won my Heart & Stole ‘Steal This Book,'” in Rolling Stone magazine of September 30, 1971.) Copyrighting the book in the name of Pirate Editions hid the fact that Hoffman had been forced to give Haber a cut of the profits.

Jerry, meanwhile, offered his own spin on ‘free.’ “Money is Shit,” he opined in his 1970 tome Do It! “Money is a drug, Amerika is a drug culture, a nation of crazy addicts….Burning money (and credit cards and banks and property) is an act of love, an act on behalf of humanity,” In Yippieland, he preached, “there will be no such crime as “stealing” because everything will be free.” Rubin acknowledged his collaborators on the title page, noting the book was “Yipped by Jim Retherford” and “Zapped by Nancy Kurshan.” Do It! was copyrighted, though, in the name of the Social Education Foundation—a non-profit. Who could possibly be against Social Education? The Internal Revenue Service, that’s who. One year after the book came out, the feds revoked the tax-free designation, asserting the only charitable work the foundation did was to funnel money to a single truly needy fellow named Jerry Rubin.

So how do Abbie and Jerry shed light on SOPA and PIPA? This way: Abbie and Jerry were right that free is a great and desirable and valuable thing. But they were also chameleons. They advocated ‘free’ when free suited them. And they advocated pay when pay was to their benefit.

This is one of the points that Jaron Lanier made in a New York Times Op-Ed on Thursday. Lanier suggested that we’ve become linear in thinking about these issues rather than acknowledging that copyright and copyleft are both a mixed bag. Addiction to copyright puts big bucks in the hands of big corporations like the ones that make and distribute movies. But copyleft—which offers free usage—puts the big bucks in the hands of big companies that assemble private data and aggregate eyeballs to sell advertising. It’s the bad guys fighting the bad guys. “We in Silicon Valley undermined copyright to make commerce more about services than content—more about our code than their files,” Lanier wrote. “The inevitable endgame was always that we would lose control of our own personal content, our own files.” Translation: we're all fucked.

But, as the money being spent on this battle shows, there are some who aren't fucked. A lot of people say the web is like a commons. Maybe. But it’s a commons where a select cadre of companies are making tons of money.

SOPA and PIPA are apparently no longer being fast-tracked, but the brouhaha is still simmering. The New York Times reports that the Motion Picture Association of America—one of the most ardent supporters of the bills—now wants to sit down with the tech companies, perhaps at the White House. At the same time, the government has upped the stakes by taking down Megaupload, one of the ‘locker services’ that allows users to upload unrestricted content (interestingly, Megaupload recently settled a copyright infringement lawsuit brought against it by the porn studio Perfect 10—though the terms of the settlement were not revealed.) The feds claimed that Megaupload was profiting massively from its position as a drop box for piracy and asserted in the indictment that the firm and its owners and subsidiaries had more than $175 million in cash stashed in 64 accounts in banks around the world. (BTW: can anyone tell me how the government has the standing to bring a case of copyright infringement? And how the government can shutter megaupload without having proved that the company’s done something wrong?)

I confess. Stealth of Nations has a small c in a circle with my name next to it on the back side of the title page. This may seem odd in a book that extols certain kinds of piracy. Indeed, I once owned a well-thumbed copy of Steal this Book—until a friend borrowed it for good. And when Yipster Times, the Yippie paper, published the calling card numbers of various federal agencies and massive corporations, I sometimes used them to make cross-country calls. Charging it to The Man. At the time, nothing felt freer.

Still, I’m glad that that little symbol is in my book. Not because it prevents piracy. Rather, I see it as a printed reminder of a labor of love that consumed years of my life. I trust that people will honor that--that other publishers won’t use my words without my permission and will include my name when they cite stuff I reported. Yes, I want people to buy my book. But the truth is that I can only wish that Stealth of Nations gets pirated and winds up on a site like Megaupload. That would mean it was a success, that it had reached a truly wide audience--and, since nothing will get pirated if there isn't demand for it, that I had made enough money on it that I didn’t need to worry about the lost revenue.

SOPA and PIPA are ugly blunt instruments that will limit free speech and have impacts far beyond the realm of copyright. But we can’t trust Google or Wikipedia to fight this battle either. Indeed, just thinking about Chris Dodd and Sergey Brin sitting down in a room with Obama’s Chief of Staff Jacob Lew and banging out a deal is bone-chilling.

Is there a lesson in all this? Perhaps it’s this: Don’t trust anyone under 40. Don’t trust anyone over 40. And don’t mess with Mr. In-between. Or, as Frank Mankiewicz told Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72: “Keep your own counsel. Don’t draw any conclusions from anything you see or hear.”


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