Like all manifestos, the Mellon Seminar’s is by turns oracular, confrontational and unclear. Manifestos have always been more about effect than exegesis, and this is particularly true in the present instance. A veritable stew of discursive styles, the Mellon Seminar’s manifesto seeks to be at once an envoy and emblem of its age.
As such, the Mellon Seminar’s manifesto begs comparison to those famously issued by the Italian Futurists nearly a century ago. Their first, “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism,” was soon followed by a second bearing the more fractious title, “Let’s Kill Off the Moonlight.” Not ones for understatement, the Futurists traffic in sanguinary grandiloquence. Case in point:
See the furious coupling of war, this enormous vulva inflamed by the lusts of courage, this shapeless vulva that splits wide open to offer itself more easily in the terrible spasm of imminent victory! Ours is the victory … I’m sure of it, for the mad are already hurling their hearts at the sky, like bombs!
Though perhaps not so lavishly violent in their rhetoric as their Futurist forebears, the folks of the Mellon Seminar don’t exactly shrink from bellicosity either. Their manifesto outlines “(guerilla) action items,” which they situate on a scale of subversive force:
weak = ignore the well-intentioned “voices of reason” that will always argue for interpreting scholarly or artistic fair use in the most restrictive manner (so as to shield the institutions they represent from lawsuits, no matter how improbable or unfounded); adopt vigorous interpretations of fair use that affirm that, in the vast majority of cases, scholarship and art practice: a) are not-for-profit endeavors whose actual costs far exceed real or potential returns; and b) are endeavors that, rather than diminishing the value of IP or copyright, enhance their value.
medium = circumvent or subvert all “claims” that branch out from the rights of creators to those of owners, the photographers hired by owners, places of prior publication…
strong = pirate and pervert materials by the likes of Disney on such a massive scale that the IP bosses will have to sue your entire neighborhood, school, or country; practice digital anarchy by creatively undermining copyright, mashing up media, recutting images, tracks, and texts.
The anarchic streak runs as strongly through the Mellon Seminar digital humanists as it does through the Futurists; but, whereas the latter conjure readers to kill off the moonlight, the Mellon Seminar digital humanists exhort them to murder copyright. Yet, these bloody deeds both serve a life principle. For the Futurists, throwing off the hidebound plangency of Romanticism leads to poetry’s renewal; for the Mellon Seminar, throwing off the dead hand of copyright law — life plus 70 years (deserts of vast eternity in our accelerated culture) — leads to the humanities’ renewal. “Digital humanists defend the rights of content makers, whether authors, musicians, coders, designers, or artists, to exert control over their creations and to avoid unauthorized exploitation,” the partisans of the Mellon Seminar write,
but this control mustn’t compromise the freedom to rework, critique, and use for purposes of research and education. Intellectual property must open up, not close down the intellect and proprius.
A rosy outlook lies behind the Mellon Seminar’s various injunctions, one which its member humanists openly characterize as utopian:
Digital Humanities implies the multi-purposing and multiple channeling of humanistic knowledge: no channel excludes the other. Its economy is abundance based, not one based upon scarcity. It values the COPY more highly than the ORIGINAL. It restores to the word COPY its original meaning: abundance. COPIA = COPIOUSNESS = THE OVERFLOWING BOUNTY OF THE INFORMATION AGE, an age where, though notions of humanistic research are everywhere under institutional pressure, there is (potentially) plenty for all. And, indeed, there is plenty to do.
Such sentiment is common to liberal–anarchic point of view. The age of virtual reproduction, where the costs associated with making cultural artifacts have in many cases become negligible (just about anyone can, with a little bit of know-how, record studio quality music on a desktop, for instance), has engendered an unprecedented situation. Gatekeepers of intellectual property now appear as veritable dogs in the manger. Each time they encode a sound-file to prohibit its copying, or each time they install crippleware on an electronic device to inhibit its full functionality, they betray the fact that scarcity is now more a matter of insistence than fact.
According to the Mellon Seminar digital humanists, then, these gatekeepers stand guilty of obstructing humanity’s digital liberation. What they prescribe is a wholesale reevaluation of prevailing economic theory, which, since Adam Smith, has been predicated on dearth:
Digital Humanities have a utopian core shaped by its genealogical descent from the counterculture-cyberculture intertwinglings of the 60s and 70s. This is why it affirms the value of the open, the infinite, the expansive, the university/museum/archive/library without walls, the democratization of culture and scholarship, even as it affirms the value of large-scale statistically grounded methods (such as cultural analytics) that collapse the boundaries between the humanities and the social and natural sciences. This is also why it believes that copyright and IP standards must be freed from the stranglehold of Capital, including the capital possessed by heirs who live parasitically off of the achievements of their deceased predecessors.
Unfortunately, it appears that the stranglehold of Capital on copyright will prevail, at least for the time being. The June 9, 2009 edition of The New York Times reports that Google’s settlement with various copyright holders has hit a snag by drawing the attention of the US Justice Department. “The Justice Department began its inquiry into the sweeping $125 million settlement this year after various parties complained that it would give Google exclusive rights to profit from millions of orphan books,” the story reads:
Orphans are books still protected by copyrights, but that are out of print and whose authors or rights holders are unknown or cannot be found.
Attorneys general in several states are also investigating the settlement.
The complex settlement agreement, which is subject to review by a federal court, was aimed at resolving a class action filed in 2005 by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers against Google. The suit claimed that Google’s practice of scanning copyrighted books from major academic and research libraries for use in its Book Search service violated copyrights.
Under the settlement, announced in October, Google would have the right to display the books online and to profit from them by selling access to individual titles and by selling subscriptions to its entire collection to libraries and other institutions. Revenue would be shared among Google, authors and publishers.
Critics said that the settlement would unfairly grant Google a monopoly over the commercialization of millions of books.
Google’s bid for monopoly control of digitized printed matter seems a retreat from the utopia envisioned by the Mellon Seminar — unless, of course, Google intends merely to curate a collection it has made widely and unconditionally available. Given Google’s famous ethic, “Don’t be evil,” it is entirely possible that, instead of representing the Mellon Seminar digital humanists’ latest adversary, Google may prove their most powerful ally.