Sunday, September 9, 2012

Do you own the art you make? No.

This BBC article got me to thinking again about the nature of art.  Short version: Philip Roth got bent out of shape because Wikipedia didn't consider him sufficiently authoritative to edit his own Wikipedia page.

Like many things, this sounds uncontroversial until you actually think about it.

First off, Wikpedia is not Facebook.  It's an encyclopedia.  If every public figure got to edit their own encyclopedia page, it would then be Facebook.

Wikipedia is about things and people, which includes what other people may think or know about them.  This can also include things they might not wish to be publicly known, or that they definitely would not discuss on their own Facebook page.

For example, the Wikipedia page on Bill Clinton  talks about Monica Lewinsky.  Bill probably would prefer it not be there, and would not go out of his way to mention or on his Facebook page.

Even in this case, the very fine writer Roth disagrees about the inspiration of one of his better known stories.  Again, one would think he would be the ultimate authority on the subject.  And indeed, in his own mind he surely is, and in fact in this case I'm inclined to believe him.

But it doesn't matter.

What if he's lying?  After all, fiction writers are professional liars!

We don't know.  We can't know.  And it just doesn't matter.

When you create a piece of art and send it out into the public space,  it simply doesn't belong entirely to you any more.  It's a part of the culture, which you have contributed to, but it is forever beyond your control.

You cannot control what people think about the art you made.  You are the authority on nothing--you simply have your own opinion on the piece.  The thing itself is now separate from you, and you don't own it any more than you have some sort of proprietary right to the words you just spoke to the grocery store clerk or the song you just sang.  Your chance to own those things is now in the past, irretrievable.

This is what I consider to be a fundamental truth, and I defy anyone to disprove it.  And this is also exactly why draconian copyright controls are not only sinful, but stupid.  You can't put the genie back in the bottle, because there is no bottle any longer to put it into.

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