Copyright is never dead. It is not even past.

November 3, 2012

William Faulkner is my favourite writer.

So in any dispute between Faulkner and anyone else, I know which side I’m on.

Faulkner’s estate is sueing the makers of ‘Midnight in Paris’:

Sony Pictures Classics and a group of movie exhibitors are the subject of a copyright infringement suit filed against them by the estate of the author William Faulkner. The suit centres on a line spoken by Owen Wilson in Woody Allen‘s comedy hit: “The past is not dead! Actually, it’s not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him, too. I ran into him at a dinner party.”

My reaction to this news was simple: sue ‘em ’til they squeal.

Let’s be honest, in the grand scheme of things this is a run of the mill copyright dispute. Far more important for me is the way that the quote itself has become more and more resonant for me in my thinking about digital media.

The exact words comes from ‘Requiem For a Nun’, not one of Faulker’s best novels:

the past is never dead.

From my Penquin paperback

It sums up perhaps the biggest theme of all of Faulkner’s writing: the inability of people to escape from the nightmare of history.

In ‘The Sound and The Fury’ Benjy who narrates the first section of the book is an idiot: a man who has no sense of time, crippled by an inability to tell the present from the past.

Digital media attacks our ability to put events in a chrononlogical order. Benjy is a man trapped in an endless life stream, a twitter feed with no dates on it, where something from ten years suddenly lurches into consciousness without rhyme or reason. He can’t care for himself, he can’t make sense of the world.

In ‘Absalom, Absalom!’ Faulkner’s greatest novel, the characters are trapped inside a fictionalised history of the American South. Thomas Sutpen’s dream of glory, of creating a shining city on a hill is doomed before it even starts by a toxic cage of racism, slavery and class, and his own ambition, vanity and lack of empathy.

Others have observed that in a digital age progress and history seem to have slowed to a stop. Currently we seem to be trapped into reliving horrible things that happened ten, twenty, thirty years ago.

It’s digital that has trapped us. Everything is now tracked and recorded. History can be interrogated in the blink of an eye. The “fascist algorythm” (see Stephen Marche’s article about how digital is attacking books: “Literature is not data”) is telling us uncomfortable truths about ourselves. But do we always have to believe what it says?

Don’t people have the right to be forgotten, and forget? Is it not possible to say “I don’t remember it like that” even when a machine is telling you it was that way?

Advocates of copyright reform argue that if the archive was freed up and everything was open to everyone to play with the result would be a flowering of creativity and wonderful innovation.

But what if opening up the archive would be like opening Pandora’s box: letting all the past evils of the world out to contaminate the present?

What if most of the past is rubbish and setting it free would pump more rubbish into an already polluted space?

What if the past lives already all around us, dragging us down?

Perhaps the past needs to be kept locked away, locked down by law, only to be accessed by those who know what to do with it and treat it with caution: managers who know its value (like the estate of William Faulkner)…

“It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books; I wish I had enough sense to see ahead thirty years ago, and like some of the Elizabethans, not signed them. It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: He made the books and he died.”

o Letter to Malcolm Cowley (11 February 1949), quoted in William Faulkner : A Critical Essay (1970) by Martin Jarrett-Kerr, p. 46; also published in Selected Letters of William Faulkner (1978) by Joseph Blotner, p. 285.

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