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Rip, Mix, and Burn the Sound and Fury

February 27th, 2003 · No Comments

One of the first things you’ll notice if you go to see MPAA president Jack Valenti speak is that, for a man who seems to regard unauthorized trade in copyrighted material as roughly on a par, morally, with the rape of small children, he has a penchant for appropriation. I saw him give a talk at the Georgetown University law school yesterday, and it seemed as though half of it was a pastiche of borrowed anecdotes and quotations from authors or philosophers. (He threw in at least a few not found in the prepared text.) I wonder, if Jack had his druthers, would his own speech be contraband?

Valenti is an effective speaker, which is to say, he makes his presentation in a compelling way when he has the podium to himself. His manner is affable and his southern drawl pleasant to listent to. The students in the audience laughed in all the right places, leaned forwards attentively in all the right places. One might object that it was a bit thin on substance, but then, good oratory has never been exclusively about substance.

In the Q&A, however, that chink in his armor became a gaping chasm. What really astonished me was how poorly prepared he seemed to answer the (depressingly small number of) good, serious questions he got. He had heard most of the objections to his moral case against file-trading before, and was armed with an array of metaphors, tropes, and examples, yet by and large his responses fell utterly flat.

After an hour in which Valenti had, in one analogy after another, acted as though intellectual property were just obviously, unquestionably exactly like physical property, one sharp fellow finally asked: “Look, what do you mean by ‘steal’ and ‘take’? Because usually when I ‘take’ something, the person I take it from doesn’t have it anymore.” Now, whether you think that difference is morally important or not, it’s a reasonable query, and obviously one you should be prepared to deal with in a lecture on the morality of file-trading. Valenti totally dropped the ball. There were a number of good arguments he could’ve made, but he dodged, and made fun of the questioner, comparing him to Clinton hedging on the definition of “is.”

When another objected to the MPAA’s heavy-handed action against distributors of deCSS, pointing out that computer users might want to legitimately circumvent encryption on DVDs they had purchased in order to play them on PCs running Linux, Valenti acted confused. He seemed totally unaware of the problem, and claimed that one could play a DVD “on any computer.” Well, technically true, if one is willing to install a new operating system on that computer, but not exactly to the point.

What about people who want to make backup copies of CDs they own? Another student wanted to know why they are treated as criminals under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Valenti’s illuminating comparison? Well, his tailor won’t replace a suit for free if it gets frayed. Either he didn’t expect an audience of law students to see any difference between ensuring your abiliity to replace what you own and demanding that someone else provide you with a replacement by their efforts, which would be an insult to their intelligence, or he didn’t see any difference himself, in which case someone ought to start insulting his. On his own argument, it’s the bits no less than the atoms, the physical medium, which are property, making it a bit opaque why one should have to buy again what one still already owns when the medium on which it was transferred is damaged.

The real low point came when some MENSA member argued that, after all, it was OK to steal from the movie industry because the movie industry portrays women and minorities in a negative light. The appropriate response, of course, is that we’ve got this thing called “free speech,” such that someone doesn’t get fewer rights even if they say odious things. Valenti eventually got around to making that response… badly… but only after going on a mini-tirade about how he’d helped LBJ pass all sorts of Great Society programs that benefitted minorities, and how dare anyone make this sort of argument to him, personally. I had real trouble deciding which of them deserved greater contempt, but ultimately concluded that the questioner at least had youth as an excuse.

During the course of the talk, Valenti had harped on the key notion, important and true in itself, that the fact that technology gave one the power to do something didn’t make it right to do it. “Man,” he intoned, quoting British philosopher William Hazlitt, “is the only animal who both laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal who understands the difference between the way things are and the way they ought to be.” Yet press him on the appropriate, logically defensible boundaries of “fair use” or the propriety of the DMCA, or whether Eldred was rightly decided, and Valenti becomes a raging positivist. Disagree with the law? Well, hey, lobby to change it, but don’t try to get into some kind of messy normative discussion, now.

I’m told Valenti actually gives classes—pricey classes, no doubt—in public speaking. I just hope he keeps an assistant on hand to cover the part where you inject that florid oratory with logic and substance.

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