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Copyright Police

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

Anyone travelling for as long as we are is bound to get sick at some point or another.

I should amend that---I was bound to get sick at some point on this five-month-long trip; my husband seems pretty much immune to the bugs that have plagued me to date: food poisoning in Galway, a cold in Brussels, and now, gastroenteritis in Spain.

I'm sure you can empathize with how much it sucks to have finished all my current reading material and yet be lying in bed without having had the chance to seek out an English bookstore.

For this reason, I have decided that I love Cory Doctorow.

For those of you unfamiliar with him, Doctorow is one of the founding editors of the terminally cool blog Boing Boing, as well as a journalist and author. He writes mostly science fiction, and, recently, published a book called Little Brother, a modern spin-off of the Orwellian-flavoured dystopia directed at YA readers (and, likely, high school English teachers like me who insist on including 1984 in their syllabus because it's a great yarn and it's an important one).

OK, but here is why I really currently love Doctorow: he makes his work available online... FOR FREE.

So as I download the PDF of the novel so that I can read it from my laptop in bed in Lisbon on this rainy afternoon while David explores the city (steering clear of English bookstores because he knows it's fruitless to try to eke from their limited stock any book I haven't yet read), it occurs to me how fabulously ironic it is that I can download legally and for free a book about undermining official channels of power using common technology like Xboxes, a book that references a classic story of official channels using technology to consolidate their own power and make outlaws of those who distribute information freely.

You want more irony? Maybe you're familiar already with the scandal caused this past summer when, maker of the Kindle e-book reader, pulled copies of 1984 from purchasers' Kindles without warning, apparently because they had not had the proper distribution permissions for the Kindle version.

In other words, pulled a virtual info-switch of near-Orwellian proportions on its unwitting customers, who thought they owned the digital copies of their books.

Now, Amazon has since apologized, recanted, reimbursed, replaced, yadda yadda... but that's not the point, is it? The point is the question of control of intellectual property and information in the digital age, and the ease with which technology makes it possible to reach into the lives of others, in and increasingly pervasive and occasionally invasive way.

By now, none of this is news. Our students are so saturated with digital sharing that they hardly think twice about downloading pirated music and video, over-sharing on Facebook, or sending inappropriate photos and video to one another on their cellphones.

Some of these behaviours are more problematic than others. Obviously we want our students to be safe in their electronic activities. But I'd like to think, personally, that issues of copyright are excellent topics for discussion in the classroom, especially if you are studying a text like 1984.

To wit (and purely commercial concerns aside): To what extent is this kind of copyright policing relevant in an age when electronic means make sharing and collaboration of texts and other art and intellectual property not only possible, but de rigueur and an art form in itself? To what extent is copyright law stifling that process and preventing an inevitable evolution toward new media forms and concepts? What happens to the concept of the artist as individual creator when his or her work becomes public property? What happens to the concept of artworks as sovereign, immutable entities?

So if you're not familiar with Cory Doctorow's opinions on such topics as digital publication and the concept of the Creative Commons (also linked above the cut in this post), I urge you to check them out. Food for thought. I anticipate his book will be too, and I'm glad  I have a copy sitting on my laptop, ready to read.

By the way, I have for years used a free e-copy of 1984 in my class to supplement the book versions my students use. Apparently I wasn't the only one aware of this additional irony.

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