February 14, 2010

Literary sampling creates German bestseller

A quite interesting story about plagiarism versus sampling in literature has unveiled itself in Germany over the last few weeks. My German might not be as good as it should but the journalists at the New York Times has helped me (and perhaps you) with the key elements of the story. Helene Hegemann a 17 year old writer and cultural wunderkind has obviously borrowed a bit too much from an earlier published book and forgot to tell anyone about it.

The publication last month of her novel about a 16-year-old exploring Berlin’s drug and club scene after the death of her mother, called “Axolotl Roadkill,” was heralded far and wide in German newspapers and magazines as a tremendous debut, particularly for such a young author. /…/

That is, until a blogger last week uncovered material in the novel taken from the less-well-known novel “Strobo,” by an author writing under the nom de plume Airen. In one case, an entire page was lifted with few changes.
From the New York Times.

Sampling and litterature
This could of course have been the end for this otherwise talented and promising German writer. Even though sampling by now more or less has been accepted in music industry, to use material from other writers has previously not been taken lightly.

The quite recent case with the Swedish writer Fredrik Colting using the character Holden Caulfield from J. D. Salingers’ book Catcher in the Rye is an illustrative example of how serious copyright and plagiarism is taken in the publishing business.

Mr. Salinger, who has not published any new work since 1965, has sued several times to protect his writing, including successful efforts to stop publication of some of his personal letters in a biography and to halt a staging of “Catcher” by a college theater company in San Francisco.
From the New York Times.

The interesting twist to the German story is that the author, Helene Hegemann, seems to come out on top after the initial discussion has settled. But it also raises interesting questions about copying and sources of inspiration as well as attribution; because the lack of attribution to her sources is one of the key discussions afterwards.

“I myself don’t feel it is stealing, because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context and from the outset consistently promoted the fact that none of that is actually by me,” Hegemann told the daily Berliner Morgenpost.
From The Local.

The future
I think we in the future will see more and more of mixing and borrowing inspiration from different sources. Not only because “everything is already written” but also because the technology makes it possible in a totally different way than for instance in the 1980’s.

This might seem as a cliché, but I also believe that it is important that we really think through how we should face this new era of easy access. Technology is developing and that is something we cannot hinder. I am quite convinced that we should not hinder the development either. It is therefore important to be prepared for the changes that are coming, both in our own mindset but also legislatively. I have no solution just yet, but I am quite convinced that we have much more to gain by adapting to the changing society that to try to keep some parts in a pre-computer-era state of mind.

Techdirt writes an interesting piece about the phenomenon and concludes:

In the same way that remixes and mashups often drive people to buy the original music, it seems like remixed/mashedup books can do the same. It may be a big cultural leap for those who think there is "a way things must be done," but it seems that the younger generation has other ideas.

But, and this might be where I eventually will end up personally, the fact that information is readily available and collaboration in the creative space can be both with and without the consent of all involved parties does not mean that it should be without rules to follow.

A first step in this is definitely to fully credit the sources used. Something which Helene Hegemann has had trouble with.

"I think there are good ethical grounds for giving sources for a book - and the fact that I neglected to do so reflects my thoughtlessness and my narcissism," Hegemann said in an interview with Die Welt, adding, "But for me personally, it doesn’t matter at all where people get their material - what matters is what they do with it.”
From Deutsche Welle.

Johan Orneblad
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[Via Svante Weyler in “Godmorgon, Världen!" Sveriges Radio P1.]

February 9, 2010

Too much ownership creates gridlock

The Columbia Law School professor Michael Heller is perhaps best known for his book The Gridlock Economy from 2008. A book which popularizes the concept of "tragedy of the anticommons". He summarizes the thesis in a speech at Google 2008 as "When too many people own pieces of the same thing, no one can use it".

Gridlock Economy
His works on the Gridlock Economy comes from the time when he was working for the World Bank on post socialist property in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. The state had little experience in private property and ended up in many cases dividing the property in too small and conflicting pieces for anyone to be able to use it.

He published his experiences in the 1997 article "The Tragedy of the Anticommons: Property in the Transiton from Marx to Markets".
From this came 2008 the book The Gridlock Economy. Heller writes in the abstract to the 1997 article:
"When there are too many owners holding rights of exclusion, the resource is prone to underuse -- a tragedy of the anticommons. Anticommons property may appear whenever new property rights are being defined. For example in Moscow, multiple owners have been endowed initially with competing rights in each storefront, so no owner holds a useable bundle of rights and the store remains empty. Once an anticommons has emerged, collecting rights into private property bundles can be brutal and slow. This article explores the dynamics of anticommons property in transition economies, formalizes the empirical material in a property theory framework, and then shows how the idea of anticommons property can be a useful new tool for understanding a range of property puzzles."

Modern gridlock
To understand the concept of the tragedy of the anticommons one can think of a piece of land divided in to so small pieces that in order for any one person to farm one acre he would need permission from hundreds of property owners. The cost and effort needed to gather all of those property owners and negotiate agreements with each would take more time and cost more than what it would be worth farming the land. In the terms of Heller this would be the opposite of the tragedy of the commons where for instance a pond is fished dry of fish since there is no owner managing the fishing in the pond.

The effects of the gridlock can rarely be seen even though they might be most significant. The New Yorker puts it as that
...the effects of underuse created by too much ownership are often invisible. They’re mainly things that don’t happen: inventions that don’t get made, useful drugs that never get to market.
One of the clearest examples of tragedy of the anticommons today is patent gridlock. The fact that there is in a specific are so many patents that you can not in any meaningful way use the technology without infringing on potentially hundreds or thousands of patents. This could be the way with for instance mobile phones which might be covered by some 5000 patents or new drugs which could have similar patent thickets laid out.

A similar situation is present when it comes to the documentary series "Eyes on the prize" from the late 80s. Heller talks about that the series which portraits the African-American Civil Rights Movement to a large extent is built on archival footage and contemporary songs, met problems when it was to be broadcast again and also released on DVD since it was too costly to track down each rights holder to get permission for the new release. Further on this can be read here.

One way to get around these problems with too fragmented rights can be to pool the rights. This is commonly used for patents, where it for many products would be an impossible task to evaluate each patent and track down it's potential rights holder. Collection societies such as ASCAP and BMI can provide the same function for copyrighted works, for instance music played on the radio.

But as Michael Heller concludes in a Newsweek article we still have a big challenge in the gridlock economy.

A survey sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences found that scientists now routinely respond to gridlock by becoming patent pirates, just like students who illegally download music. Commercial drug developers, of course, cannot risk disregarding competitors' patents. Many of the world's leading drugmakers simply redirect investment toward less challenging areas and innovation quietly slips away. The dearth of new blockbuster drugs should prod Big Pharma off its longstanding position that the existing patent regime must be defended no matter what.

Commons and Anticommons
The ideas of commons and anticommons are not new and Michael Heller does not claim to have come up with the concepts, though he has coined the term "tragedy of the anticommons". It is in this rich idea tradition the newly published anthology "Commons and Anticommons" edited by Heller, takes an in depth approach trying to understand the relation between overuse and underuse of property.

Heller has collected 35 articles over a total of 1,192 pages in two volumes. Contributors ranging from Aristotle and Carl Shapiro to the 2009 Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom and Michael Heller himself.

To me, the book's contribution lays in that it collects most of the relevant research on the tragedy of the commons and anticommons in one place and thus challenges the reader to understand the broader picture as well as the specifics of for instance spectrum allocation and the fishing industry.

Johan Orneblad
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Further resources

Audio and video
Authors@Google: Michael Heller on YouTube
Heller on Gridlock and the Tragedy of the Anticommons on Econtalk
Tragedies of the Gridlock Economy, an Economy Information Project conference on the Gridlock Economy hosted by George Mason University School of Law, with a discussion by Michael Heller and Richard Epstein. The conference is discussed here and some of the papers from the book Commons and Anticommons can also be found on the conference website.
Hearsay Culture interview with Michael Heller
Are patents and copyrights making innovation impossible? Out-Law Radio interview with Michael Heller

Gridlock Economy on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
Commons and Anticommons on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
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