From a diatribe of mine a few weeks ago, some readers may have gotten the impression that I have disdain for media companies, copyrights and associated law. But that’s not it.
I respect those companies a lot. They create opportunities for creative people to share their vision. They are culture creators.
British comedian Eddie Izzard did a bit about how you can go to any country in the world and, by mentioning Scooby Doo, make a friend. It’s funny. You should check it out.
These cultural images create a common language in which the world can communicate more complex ideas or emotions.
And like in most languages, the usage evolves. Meanings change. Parts get re-appropriated for new purposes that were not originally intended.
When “Calvin & Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson saw the beloved little boy he created used on bumper stickers to urinate on a Chevy logo or a rival sports team mascot, he was sad about seeing his character misused, but he couldn’t stop it.
On the other hand, Ronald Reagan took the moral clarity of the good vs. evil fight in “Star Wars” and used it to re-frame the Cold War, with a Soviet “evil empire” and a “Star Wars” space-based missile defense system, to distinguish his approach from Jimmy Carter’s pussyfooting around the enemy.
And in this day and age, with Facebook shares and Twitter re-tweets, cultural concepts and ideas — pictures, quotes, songs, movie clips, even single words — are all passed around, mixed up with others and pushed back out into the pool.
These concepts, basic nuggets of culture, are called memes. The word, which rhymes with “teams,” was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book "The Selfish Gene," where a meme is explained as “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation,” like a mental or cultural version of biology’s genes.
Ironically, this word was coined around the time that movie and music companies began fighting information exchange — the time when music and video cassettes allowed people to copy and share their content.
It wasn't considered wrong, when books were the most popular medium to copy a poem and share it to a friend, or even lend the whole book (gasp!).
I’m pretty sure there was, at first, only one blues song that, after decades of borrowing, sorry, copyright infringment led to every rock and/or roll (a term I just stole from an episode of “The Simpsons”) song ever written.
The companies and individuals that originally create these ideas do deserve to be compensated fairly for the tremendous amount of work and resources that go into their productions.
But they also have to realize that, at a certain point, they don’t own it any more. At some point, an idea belongs to everyone who knows it, because it’s not a product. It cannot be stolen or destroyed, only copied and spread further.
And as it spreads, it becomes a part of our lives.
We used to understand this.
A century ago, consumable culture was not nearly as common or available.
The only works of art that people could own were books, paintings or sculptures, sheet music or maybe a player piano roll or one of those new-fangled Edison cylinders.
Most people couldn’t afford to buy a lot of those options.
This is why we have art museums, band concerts and public libraries.
Public libraries have been a part of American culture since before America was founded, a sort of proto-internet network of institutions that allowed people to search for or request any information they needed.
We have always been a country that encourages and enjoys freely available and exchangeable ideas.
When vinyl records allowed people to bring music into their own homes, most libraries started stocking those to be borrowed and shared.
When VHS tapes brought movies and TV shows into homes, most libraries started stocking those too and offering them up for free.
Today, libraries still offer a lot of vinyl records and VHS tapes, but some are getting into the ebook trade, allowing people who use Kindles or iPads to download books online.
But it does seem ironic that, in this time of unprecedented ability to exchange ideas, we are seeing less and less of it allowed.
In the HDN YouTube video about last year’s Optimist Easter Egg hunt, I used the song “Tisket A Tasket” by Ella Fitzgerald as a soundtrack because it was cute, the kids were carrying baskets and it sounded more pleasant than hundreds of children screaming about plastic eggs.
While U.S. copyright law protects unlicensed use in news reporting, if you watch that video in Germany, it’s silent, because of a complaint from the rights holders in Germany.
When did the amazing things that can happen with free and open exchange of information become less important than protecting companies from their own fans, who just want to share an idea they like?
I’m going to say lobbyists are to blame, but who knows.
(Zach White is a reporter for the Havre Daily News.)