Too much information

I was asked for my opinion on Wiki Leaks and the scandals erupting in cyberspace, where top secret documents suddenly appear to embarrass high•ranking military officials, bureaucrats and corporate barons. Are we justified in having this stuff floating around in the public domain, I was quizzed? Or should we let it all hang out and sock it to these honchos in high places who help each other out by launching wars, who cry for bailouts, and who lock the taxpayer into an “or else” hammer lock in order to fund their shenanigans under threat of terrorism or bankruptcy?

My first reaction was, “Dare anyone speak about this stuff in this day and age? Let’s see • if I am pro•Wiki Leaks, I could get on some nation’s no•fly list; if I am anti•Leaks, the hackers will block my Visa & Master Card accounts, erase me from social networking sites and punish me.” But either way, I could become famous if I go public with my plight. Hmm…

My next reaction was, “Another opinion on Wiki Leaks? Haven’t we made its owner a cult hero already with our nosiness? I mean, don’t we already know that classified stuff exists under any political system? Don’t we keep information protected via copyright, patent and trade secret laws? Aren’t writers agitating to have their copyrights protected and not splashed all over the Internet for free? Okay, and why do we have to have this leaked stuff piled on us in these digital dumpsters, filling our information intake valves faster than the garbage gushing into Toronto’s landfills? Hasn’t anyone learned that “less is more?”

Finally, I caved. “Okay, if you insist, I’ll venture an opinion, but you may not like it.” (Note to reader: Writers are opinionated people)

Disclosing information is good if it makes the world a better place, reveals injustice and leads to its correction – I’m sold on that. Enron was a good example, so was Mount Cashel. But there is a limit to disclosing information, especially if it harms people, property, or both, and especially if nothing good can be salvaged out of the disclosure. Didn’t we only recently coin that phrase “Too Much Information,” one that young people bandy around liberally these days in their text messages? For instance, if two neighbours are getting along, however tenuously, why upset the apple cart by saying to one that the other guy had once called him an asshole? Sure that’s disclosure, but does it advance progress or enhance relationships? Does it make the neighbourhood a better place? Do I need to know what my kids call me when they are mad at Dad?

So my opinion on this business: use common sense, guys! Whistle•blowing and mud•slinging are two different activities, although they both begin with a sense of frustration and a desire for change.

Oh that reminds me—I’d better check the showerhead in my washroom now. Just in case a hacker from either side of the debate, unhappy with my opinion, sneaks in a spy•cam and “captures” me on digital. The fame I have sought as a writer of strong male characters will come to me in the most sudden and unexpected way. I can imagine the instantaneous blurb on You Tube “Extra, Extra: Writer Lets It All Hang Out. Check him out • he is not as hot as his fiction!”

To protect or to give it away?

The copyright debate is underway in Canada and writers have mobilized heavyweights like the leaders of the opposition parties (who have all had the time to write books, it appears) to defend us from our wily prime minister, who has still to write one and who likes to sell everything we own to the highest bidder.

On the other hand,we have award•winning writers like Terry Fallis and Corey Doctorow who gave away their books for free on the Internet and later trade published them to great global sales. The Internet is just a promotional channel for these bolder, more enlightened authors who believe that anonymity is a worse sin than lost royalties, and in so publishing their work for free on the Net, earn more royalties than most writers who jealously guard their copyrights.

What does one do? To protect, or to give it away, that is indeed the question? Scanning the various copyright discussion boards, a few points seem to emerge that most stakeholders agree upon: (1) Writers should be fairly compensated for their work, ideally by those receiving value from this work (2) Publishers should be fairly compensated for their risks and for any marketing and distribution effort they employ that bring tangible results (3) Quality control should be maintained on what gets published in the world, for there is too much junk floating out there (4) Readers should pay for value. (5) There is no copyright on ideas or mashups of creative thinking (6) The Internet is a great marketing medium, and writers can become famous in this space but not necessarily wealthy unless they publish in paper form (7) Readers do not like reading books off the Internet on a PC (over time, Kindle and other devices may help approximate or surpass the printed book’s functionality but we are far away from mass adoption of these devices today) (8) Copyright usually outlives the writer’s life and the book’s shelf life – so why does the protection period have to last for so long?

Whatever model we have employed in the past, be it the patronage model (i.e. the writer is adopted by a rich patron), the royalty model, the self•publishing model, the give•it•away•for•free•on•the•Internet model, they all fall short of addressing the points above that we all agree upon. It’s like buying a car these days—it comes loaded with pros and cons disguised as features.

One thing is clear – if we are to produce high quality art, a total focus to the medium is required by the artist, and having to split that focus by earning a living elsewhere is only going to come at the expense of creating good art. Perhaps the argument needs to shift away from copyright to the wellbeing and the creative nurturing of the artist. How will we nurture the artist and give him a place to produce work that stretches our imagination and shapes the culture he comes from? Once we have cracked that code, copyright will be less relevant – for copyright will belong to society, who will in turn honour, respect and take care of its artists. I think of the Buddhist monk with his bowl for alms going door to door, certain that he will receive enough to fill his stomach, so that he in turn can focus on spiritual service to his flock of devotees.