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May 8, 2004
How bizarre to see Edward Rothstein characterize both Siva Vaidhyanathan's Anarchist in the Library and Larry Lessig's Free Culture as exercises in "countercultural romance," arguing that the two give short shrift to "the hard-won solitary labors of the artist who doesn't pirate or sample."
There is no such artist. And Rothstein himself is the romantic.
The surface problem here is clashing definitions, with the roots in clashing ideologies. What is "piracy" and "sampling"? Rothstein's definition appears to derive from the discursive tradition of the courts -- a tradition that has enshrined in law (and our culture) the artist/author as romantic hero: the solitary genius who, mini-God-like, creates something new under the sun.
Except that there isn't anything new under the sun, and neither creativity nor authorship happens in a vacuum. It's the modern/post-modern conception of the author that recognizes this (though the truth is ancient). So it's all the more bizarre to see Rothstein call Vaidhyanathan and Lessig "anti-modernist," asserting that they "yearn for a preindustrial world in which an unbounded terrain of entertainment and folk art is somehow made freely available." You can almost hear the sneer in that sentence. Yet he goes on to praise the "real accomplishments" of the open source software movement -- profoundly derivative, collaborative authorship at its finest.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of the review as a whole. But I would advise those of you who agree with Rothstein about authorship to take a good, hard look at the works you admire, and challenge yourself to identify progenitors in voice, style, substance, form, etc. I'd be tremendously surprised if you did not come away with a more nuanced definition of "piracy," "sampling" and creativity than you may have had before.
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