The thorny question of moral rights

Bob has been asking Scott about the interesting question of the moral rights of copyright owners and has a good example. My aforementioned friend Bill Thompson has always taken a strong position on this in an attempt to control the effects of anything he might write – for example:

‘I’d try hard to argue that the BNP using anything of mine to support any of their positions was inherently derogatory’

He cites this sort of example of his moral rights as a strong reason why he won’t use Creative Commons all the time. It is a commonly held view, especially, it seems, in the UK.

I think what is missing here is a very important debate on freedom of speech. Let’s start from somewhere else – let’s say that no man is an island and any ideas we have will have been derived from other ideas other people have had and should ultimately (once the trade monopoly stage is exhausted) belong to one’s culture as a whole.

There may be new things to say in this debate. Not so long ago, people who were fighting against right wing extremists took the old 1930s Cable Street position – ‘they shall not pass’ ( or speak on any platform) – as their standpoint. Nowadays – given the omnipresence of communication, you will find some of their opponents thinking rather differently. Here for example is part of an interview with Dyab Abou Jahjah, the head of the Arab European League based in Antwerp, earlier this year, before the most recent elections:

“DAJ: Of course, I don’t believe people should call for violence… or defame others – and there are normal legal frameworks for all that. But when it comes to political opinions and artistic or literary expressions, I don’t believe they should be silenced. Especially when it comes to the arts – you really need to be able to give expression to extreme views that challenge the boundaries of society as we know them and what is acceptable. I really am in favour of absolute freedom of speech. I do not believe that laws and regulations limiting what people say can be effective. Because you can never limit what people think… So I don’t want to be a part of any system or any group – even if it is in my favour – who want to oppress any person or any group because of something they say…

RB: You said before that you would rather that the far right were not protected from themselves by laws banning hate speech. How are the far right doing?

DAJ: The far right has been growing as usual. The election after we last spoke saw them increase their numbers again. The process which banned them gave them a chance to start a new party with a new name which has attracted some different support to it – Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest rather than Flemish Bloc) – and they brought forward a few figures who were more clubbable, more articulate than the last bunch – so I think they are getting stronger… Their persecution has not held them back – it has helped them pragmatically. Which is not why it is wrong – that pragmatic effect gives us an extra reason.

But it is a matter of principle. Even if it had broken them up – it would have been a bad idea, because they would have been destroyed not because their ideas were totally unmasked in front of a population that as a result would choose democracy rather than racism – but because the Establishment used its superior power to squash them. That’s not how I want to combat racism. I want to destroy racists through struggle – through the mobilisation of anti-racist forces, through grass roots activism – so that they are so marginalised that they can say whatever it is they want to say but, like the Klu Klux Klan are today in the United States – they are laughed at.”

Obviously this is to take an extreme case – but given all the legislation on hate speech and objections to ‘political correctness’ and so forth, it is an important example to think about. Maybe the time has come, as Gilberto Gil suggests in his approach to copyright, to encourage people to see that it is part of their ‘moral rights’ in what they say that their utterances belong to society as a whole and may be voluntarily given back to society to use in whatever way it wishes… to be generous with their sharing in other words, and not to withdraw their ideas from the commons without having very good reasons for doing so, even if it helps others whom they don’t like to express themselves in a democracy.

Maybe the only good reasons for not doing this in such societies are the ones DAJ mentions, legal defamation, but above all – incitement to violence.

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2 Comments on “The thorny question of moral rights”

  1. Bob Croxford Says:

    “Let’s start from somewhere else – let’s say that no man is an island and any ideas we have will have been derived from other ideas other people have had and should ultimately (once the trade monopoly stage is exhausted) belong to one’s culture as a whole.”

    Why? How does this help encourage works of original authorship?

    The idea is typical of Lessing and his followers and is so attractive to the cut and paste generation. There has been a word around for some time to describe work derived from others, Hack. (= writer for newspapers or magazines) whose work is low in quality or lacks imagination:

    Why not start from the premise that creativity, talent and genius is a pretty rare thing and needs all the encouragement it can get. Lets also examine why some countries creativity grew substantially when authorship was rewarded via strengthened copyright acts. The USA springs to mind.

  2. Ted Says:

    The 19th century lasted from 1801 through 1900 in the Gregorian calendar. Historians sometimes define a Nineteenth Century historical era stretching from 1815 (The Congress of Vienna) to 1914


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