Digital Barbarism, by Mark Helprin

My adoration for Helprin's prose is so extreme that I was unable physically to restrain myself from paying full price for the hardcover edition of this work. Ostensibly, Digital Barbarism is an argument for extending copyright protection a few more years, but being by Helprin, it's also a lyrical and bombastic defense of Western civilization, worth the cover price for its cranky asides on the human condition alone.

If you haven't read any Helprin, maybe start with Winter's Tale. My own very favorite of his novels is Memoir from Antproof Case, and I love his story collection The Pacific And Other Stories even more, but all his books are masterpieces.

Here's the original op-ed by Helprin, that gave rise to the widespread online criticism that encouraged Helprin to write Digital Barbarism. The New York Times did Helprin a disservice by giving the op-ed a headline that implied Helprin wants copyright protection extended in perpetuity, which is not what he actually argues for in the op-ed. Most writers can only wish, incidentally -- with regard to that image Helprin uses to evoke their financial plight -- that they had the financial security of a seal in the Central Park Zoo,

Digital Barbarism also caricatures and rains scorn on the blogosphere, although in Helprin's defense, the blogosphere does not seem to have responded very subtly to his op-ed. And he does include one sentence to the effect that some bloggers are okay.

I'm not going to take a position on copyright today, beyond noting that in one sense great literature is everyone's spiritual inheritance, and in another sense the money made by a particular few works may be the sole actual inheritance of a writer's descendants. I read most of this book beside the path from the Warming Hut, in the Presidio, up to the Golden Gate Bridge, while my daughter and her friend collected insects. The seals in the bay have even less financial security than those in the zoo.

2 thoughts on “Digital Barbarism, by Mark Helprin”

  1. But at least seals never receive e-mails from nightclubs inviting them to follow them on Twitter.

  2. So, what is the solution? Is the problem not so much with the copyright, but with the publishers?

    I think the comparison mentioned above is a strong one, but then, a piece of art is not like a house or any other material property. A piece of art is in most cases displayed publicly. The artist shares it with the whole world, lets everyone in on it as much as one likes. No material property offers that intimate and mindful appropriation as does a piece of art. No house owner or factory owner lets the whole world walk in and out of his property, in fact, they might come after you, yelling at you, pointing a gun at you.

    I was personally affected in this matter due to my activity as a teacher of A Course In Miracles, which is a spiritual work not authored by those who wrote it down on paper or published it. Nevertheless, the foundation for this work claimed the copyright for it, and lost it more than 20 years after its first publication.

    I agree with you about the idea of a spiritual inheritance. The more true and universal a work is, the less can it be copyrighted, because every human being depends on the truth to be freely available, especially when it advocates teaching and practical application as much as A Course In Miracles does. No one can own the truth. It belongs to everyone.

    Maybe the problem with the whole copyright issue is not so much the free, private, not for profit use of it by individuals, but the exclusive use for profit by corporations, publishers etc. Is Helprin maybe also saying, that authors are not in proper charge of what happens to their work once they let it go on the market? Should fair use practices be extended? Should authors give away less rights to publishers? Should everyone be able to make use of any piece of art while at the same time having to pay royalties for any profit made?

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