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Copyright and Other Fairy Tales: Hans Christian Andersen and the Commodification of Creativity

Author(s):Porsdam, Helle
Reviewer(s):Khan, B. Zorina

Published by EH.NET (June 2006)

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Helle Porsdam, editor, Copyright and Other Fairy Tales: Hans Christian Andersen and the Commodification of Creativity. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2006. vi + 172 pp. $85 (cloth), ISBN: 1-84542-601-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by B. Zorina Khan, Department of Economics, Bowdoin College.

Once upon a time a professor of American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark had a cute idea. She would edit a volume of essays that employed the literary device of linking Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) to the authors’ own particular dicta on copyright policy. Helle Porsdam (for that is the name of our editor) herself would compose a preface to summarize the contributions of her essayists and to introduce Hans Christian (HCA) as the “best of story tellers” to those of us who were more familiar with Pikachu or Scooby Doo rather than the Little Match Girl. The truth is that the real HCA had little or nothing to do or say about copyright; but, rather than unpleasantly carping about minor details, let us, like all consumers of fables, ignore such inconvenient facts and turn our attention to the narration.

The first chapter is related by Lawrence Lessig, who starts out with the obligatory reference to HCA but cleverly employs a Dr. Seuss-like accent: “Knowledge is remix. Politics is remix. Remix is how we create. Remix is how we recreate. … Think a bit about this concept of ‘remix.’ Think a bit about ‘remix’ in particular before technology got into the mix. Think about it before Hollywood got in the mix” (p. 16). Lessig’s point is that we all recreate and reinterpret culture, either as writers, readers, viewers or commentators. Social constraints on our ability to reconstruct culture range from none (an animated discussion about a movie among friends) to state-imposed remedies (jail and a $250,000 fine for illegal copying of the same movie.) Technological innovations such as digitalization have had a dramatic impact on the culture of remixing: the “explosion” of copying on the Internet; the “war” and “battles” against piracy; and the “weapons” used to prevent illegal remixing. Copyright law, in this new regime, imposes prohibitively high costs on the creative process of remixing. The raconteur, as in all fairy tales, knows the way through this maze. One example is the nonprofit organization he founded, the Creative Commons, which specifies the commercial uses that can be made of works by the participants in the Commons.

Stina Teilmann, in the second chapter “On Real Nightingales and Mechanical Reproductions,” stays closer to the HCA trope (metalepsis?) and gives several examples of HCA’s fairy tales that centered on real versus imitation articles. Her article explores the issue of authenticity in the history of copyright laws in France and Britain. Initially a distinction was drawn between a copy (specific to printing and closely related to the original) and a reproduction (images that are clearly different from the original), but over time the two terms were conflated in copyright law. The Internet comprises the final stage of this conflation, where every copy is an original in itself, with the “same ontological status.” Since copyright law depends on the prohibition of the reproduction of originals, it “cannot cope with the order of sameness on the Internet” (p. 34). Leslie Kim Treiger-Bar-Am’s contribution, “Adaptations with Integrity,” can also be viewed as another facet of the issue of authenticity, since the essay examines one of the so-called moral rights of authors to control changes to their work. The chapter proposes (p. 62) that “modifications to all artforms, and of all types, ought potentially be actionable pursuant to the integrity right.”

In the realm of books, authenticity is frequently linked to the “authorization” of individual writers. Uma Suthersanen examines the way in which authors developed as stakeholders in the quest for an international copyright in the nineteenth century. The expansion of markets on both sides of the Atlantic enabled the emergence of a class of professional writers who lobbied for recognition of international copyrights. Charles Dickens was interested in international copyright and HCA knew Charles Dickens but the skeptical among us might have some trouble in viewing this as per se evidence that HCA was interested in copyright issues of the twenty-first century. Like the central characters in many HCA tales, Fiona Macmillan makes a virtue of necessity and acknowledges upfront that her article comprises “a flight of imaginative fancy” regarding what HCA might have to say about copyright rules today. She concludes by doubting that HCA “would have been sanguine about the picture of cultural homogenization and domination painted above” (p. 101), much less the commodification of culture. Michael Blakeney considers the “propertization of traditional knowledge” with an emphasis on the Australian experience.

Lee Davis, another contributor to this volume, is also concerned about digital cultural goods in the realm of copyright. The final chapter, by Marieke van Schijndel and Joost Smiers, imagines a (presumably better) “world without copyright.” Digital technologies, by “axing the roots of the copyright system,” have made copyright impossible or at least redundant; and for today’s developing countries, intellectual property “is nothing but a disaster” (p. 149). The alternative they propose is a model of usufruct without property rights, a model that might be applied equally to other forms of intellectual property, but they leave the working out of the technical details to a future date.

We may suppose that the editor of “Copyright and Other Fairy Tales” does not literally mean to imply that all claims in this book are akin to fairy tales. Still, as in effective fairy tales, at times the artless reader may be confused about the distinction between the authentic Hans Christian Andersen and HCA, the character created as a projection of the authors’ own views. The lack of recognition of his copyrights “sickened” Andersen; yet Porsdam is hopeful that he would agree with authors of the articles in her book who feel that “copyright is not and should not be considered as ‘property'” (p. 9). (An equally interesting literary exercise might be to assess what Edward Elgar would say about calls for the end of copyright.) As for copyright policy itself, this book is useful in offering several viewpoints, and if none of them is from an economist’s perspective we have only ourselves to blame for not paying more attention to this important subject. Moreover, I did learn the surprising fact that there is actually an HCA story that I have yet to read, called “Auntie Toothache.” Or was that just another abstruse metonym for intellectual property in the twenty first century?

B. Zorina Khan is Associate Professor of Economics at Bowdoin College, a member of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the author of The Democratization of Invention: Patents and Copyrights in American Economic Development, 1790-1920 (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII