The Privatization of Our Culture


| February 27, 2002 Issue


B ret Dawson is mad as hell, and with good reason. In recent years, he argues, the invisible hand of the market has effectively turned all of Western culture into private property. Writing in the Canadian magazine Shift, Dawson declares: "Our entire culture" -- the experiences, icons, images, and archetypes that we collectively call "The West" -- "has fallen into private hands, taking with it our right to tell our stories, our right to keep our personal lives personal, even our right to heal our sick."

Dawson points an accusing finger at the spread of intellectual property law -- via its legal instruments: copyright, trademark and patent -- citing a litany of examples of how these have served to privatize thought, stifle freedom of expression, jeopardize privacy and damage democracy. Take the battles over Napster and other digital file-sharing services like Gnutella. If we let the record labels, software publishers, and other copyright-holders have their way, bullying you into paying for every piece of information you consume, he warns, "your every move through that digital swamp [will be] tracked and recorded, all in the name of enforcing copyright."

Intellectual property even threatens public health, Dawson points out, citing the way Bayer, manufacturer of the antibiotic Cipro, greedily enforced its patent in the wake of the anthrax scare last October, strong-arming the Canadian public health service into paying premium prices for its name-brand product while supplies were short, even though less expensive generic alternatives were readily available. And don't forget the South African government's war with the drug companies over access to patented AIDS drugs.

But the greatest threat posed by intellectual property is its effect on the way we think and express ourselves, the way we not only consume cultural images, but the way we process and re-create them ourselves. Dawson quotes fellow Canadian Naomi Klein, author of No Logo (Picador, 1999): "The underlying message of copyright bullying is that culture is something that happens to you," writes Klein. "But culture is more than that. . . . Culture may begin as something you buy at the Virgin Megastore or rent at Blockbuster, but it only flowers into its true form when people turn those movies and tunes into conversations and ideas and personal, life-changing moments."

It's time to take our cultural property back, Dawson rails. Copyright, trademarks, and patents will not go away anytime soon, he allows, but they can be stopped "by vigorous and sensible public debate, by people who know their culture is under siege . . . if we dare to take our archetypes and our icons and our superheroes and make them our own once more."

"Batman can save the day," Dawson concludes, "really he can, if only we have the courage to write that story."
--Leif Utne
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