Lessig reviews Helprin's embarrassing infinite copyright, bloggers-are-stupid, Creative Commons is evil book

Two years ago, fantasy novelist Mark Helprin published an op-ed in the New York Times arguing for perpetual copyright. The essay was so ham-fisted and odd that a lot of people assumed that it was a joke, but now that he's published a book on the subject, Digital Barbarism, we can be pretty sure he wasn't kidding.

In the Huffington Post, Larry Lessig has written an in-depth review of the book, and the picture he paints isn't pretty. Starting from the question, "Why isn't copyright perpetual," Helprin goes on to totally fail to research this question, failing to inspect any of the arguments that have preceded his asking. Instead, he raises a bunch of tired old saws about copyright as property, and, on the way, characterizes the Internet as a colossal failure (though, as Lessig points out, it seems like it was the only tool he used to research his book), populated by "blogger-ants" (that would be me, I guess), and led by crypto-Marxist "professors in glasses" (that would be Larry, a former Young Republican).

But Helprin has spent precious little time actually researching the supposed copyright abolition movement he's so up in arms about. He apparently watched a video in which Professor James Boyle appears, because he talks about Jamie's "desire to appear almost English, an embarrassing phase some insecure colonials enter never to exit" (Jamie is Scottish). But that's about it. He thinks that Creative Commons exists to promote "freeware" software. He thinks Lessig is anti-copyright. He thinks "monopoly" can only be applied to commodities (because he looked it up in the dictionary, and it says so there). As Lessig sez, "Too bad the lawyers at AT&T didn't read the OED when Reagan's Justice Department intervened to break up its monopoly in 'telephone service.' I can hear Attorney Helprin now: 'Your honor, excuse me, but the government has no case here. AT&T is not a monopoly, because AT&T sells no 'commodity.' A commodity is a 'thing,' your honor. All we sell is telephone service."

It's amazing that 232 pages of (let's not mince words) badly researched twaddle made it off the presses at HarperCollins — but it's nice to be sure that Helprin wasn't kidding after all.

"Maybe," you say, charitable reader that you are, "he read the books, but just didn't cite them." And true enough: Helprin has this weird thing against citation. He quotes me criticizing him (on my blog): "Helprin barely cites anyone …. [He] doesn't bother with what others have written…." (164) but then defends his practice: "It's one thing to learn from others, but another to copy them." (164). True enough. But then it is a third thing to acknowledge a point you have drawn from another — assuming, of course, pace solipsism, you believe that there are other people in the world, and they might possibly have something to say. At another part of the book, he mocks students who "support their assertions with crushing citations." (162) A sin, perhaps, but nothing as compared to an author who supports his assertions with no citations at all.

But if he actually read any of these books, he didn't take notes. The structure of his book is sprinkles of promises to make an argument, mixed with the most self-indulgent reflections upon his own life. And when Helprin actually gets around to argument, the arguments are a series of questions. (For example: "Where do they get the idea that copyright is a drag on artistic production? Are they suggesting that Pasternak could not write because Yeats had beaten him to the punch, that Tolstoy didn't write War and Peace because Moby Dick was copyrighted?" (140); or "What magic influence comes into play to convert a condition that does not hinder publication or however many years of commercial availability into a condition that then has the opposite effect?" (77); "Is the argument that books that go into print while copyrighted and stay in print for twenty years while copyrighted go out of print because they are copyrighted?" (77)) None of these questions are profound or new. None of them would be unanswered if the author had spent two weeks researching before he wrote. But Helprin apparently didn't have time to research. And who does these days? We're living in Internet time. It's work enough simply to keep up with the blogs!

The Solipsist and the Internet (a review of Helprin's Digital Barbarism)