Monday, February 15, 2010

Harry Potter and the Simulacrum

I've been meaning to blog about this for a couple months now. An article of mine, which may be of interest to readers of my book, The Late Age of Print, was published in the October 2009 issue of the journal, Critical Studies in Media Communication (CSMC). Here's the citation, abstract, and keywords:
Ted Striphas, "Harry Potter and the Simulacrum: Contested Copies in an Age of Intellectual Property," Critical Studies in Media Communication 26(4) (October 2009): 1-17.

This essay begins by investigating how and on what basis the boundary between originals and copies gets drawn within the framework of intellectual property law. It does so by exploring Harry Potter-related doubles that were featured in the 2000 trademark and copyright infringement case, Scholastic, Inc., J. K. Rowling, and Time Warner Entertainment Company, L.P. v. Nancy Stouffer. The paper then moves on to consider how, within the context of the case, the boundary line dividing “originals” from “copies” grows increasingly indeterminate, so much so that it becomes untenable to speak of either category at all. It thus investigates what happens when the figure of the simulacrum, which troubles bright-line distinctions between originals and copies, enters into the legal realm. Theoretically, the simulacrum would seem to pose a challenge to intellectual property law's jurisprudential foundations, given how it blurs what should count as an “original” or a “derivative” work. This paper shows that while this may be true in principle, powerful multimedia companies like Scholastic, Time Warner, and others can strategically deploy simulacra to shore up their intellectual property rights.

Keywords: Harry Potter; Intellectual Property; Copyright; Trademark; Simulacrum
There's a good deal of thematic overlap between the article and Chapter 5 of The Late Age of Print, which also focuses on Harry Potter and intellectual property rights. They differ, though, in that the journal essay is more theoretically focused than the book chapter; the latter, I suppose, is more historical and sociological.

The strange thing about "Harry Potter and the Simulacrum" is that even though it's quite theoretical, it's also quite -- I'm not sure what exactly -- playful? comical? whimsical? In any case, it's probably the most fun piece that I've ever written and published. I attribute that largely to the bizarre court case at the center of the essay, which I swear must have been plucked from the pages of a Lewis Carroll story.

In a perfect world I'd link to a PDF of the article, but the journal publisher, Taylor & Francis, prohibits it. In an almost perfect world I'd link you to a post-print (i.e., the final word processing version that I submitted to CSMC), but even that I'm contractually barred from doing for 18 months from the time of publication.

Taylor & Francis charges $30 for the essay on its website, which to my mind is just ridiculous. Heck, a yearly personal subscription to the journal costs $81! So, if you're university-affiliated and want to take a look at the piece, I'd encourage you to check with your own institution's library. If you're not, I'm allowed to share a limited number of offprints with colleagues, and you can email me for one.

To complicate matters even more, the printed version of "Harry Potter and the Simulacrum" has the wrong copyright declaration. I signed Taylor & Francis' double-secret "license to publish" form instead of the usual copyright transfer. Despite that, the piece still says © National Communication Association, which is the scholarly society under whose auspices CSMC is published. Sigh.

Suddenly this is starting to sound like a Lewis Carroll story....

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Where the Cylons will come from

I missed most of the SyFy (née Sci Fi) series Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), though I managed to catch enough to know that I wanted to watch the new prequel, Caprica, from the beginning. I haven't been disappointed. With the pilot and two episodes now under my belt, it's safe to say that I'm hooked.

Caprica provides an origin story for the Cylons, a cyborg race created by humans who later attempt to annihilate their masters. That may sound pretty de rigueur as far as the sci-fi genre goes, but here's the twist: we learn that each Cylon's "being" -- his, her, or its unique identity or essence -- is actually the aggregation of a human individual's medical records, purchasing patterns, educational transcripts, voting records, electronic communications, and other personal information archived online. The Cylons are, in other words, the walking, talking, informational avatars of the human race.

It was with all that in mind that I happened upon the clip embedded below, which is from the February 2, 2010 episode of The Colbert Report. The title, "Cognoscor Ergo Sum," translates from the Latin as, "I am known, therefore I am." How apt. In the segment Colbert spotlights,, and other websites that allow people to reveal and record the intimate details of their daily lives. Blippy lets you broadcast what you've just purchased using your credit card, and where. IJustMadeLove allows you shout from the electronic rooftops when, where, and how you've just done the nasty. (Yes, I wish I were making that one up.)

The Word - Cognoscor Ergo Sum
Colbert Report Full Episodes

There's been all sorts of talk for years now about the vulnerability of information online, and it's no surprise given the proliferation of networked databases that identity theft has emerged as one of the foremost crimes of our time. What's even more striking to me, however, is how Caprica and the Colbert clip together seem to shift the meaning of -- and even up the ante on -- identity theft.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that we humans are poised to give rise a line of super-machines intent on wiping us out. What I am suggesting, though, is that we can only begin to imagine how and for what purpose the digital data trails that we leave behind today will be used in the future. I like to think about it this way: when I started college, how could I have anticipated a rash of photos and videos surfacing close to 20 years later on Facebook? Heck -- there was barely an internet back then, let alone affordable scanners or even the idea of social networking.

Leave it to popular culture, then, to register one of the critical questions of this new decade: how does a society plan for an information future that may well be unfathomable, technologically speaking?

Monday, February 08, 2010

Oprah has landed

It's always intriguing for me to see how life influences the direction of one's work. When I was growing up in the 1980s, 4:00 p.m. meant one thing: The Oprah Winfrey Show would be on the television set in my home. Sometimes my mother would take a break from cooking to watch the show in our TV room. If the meal was complicated, she'd just turn the TV up and listen from the kitchen. Either way, 4 pm meant that it was her time -- and consequently my time -- with Oprah.

Plus or minus two decades later I published an article on Oprah's Book Club in an academic journal called Critical Studies in Media Communication and, later, a chapter on the same subject in my book, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control (Columbia University Press, 2009).

Because I've been ensconced in Oprah for so long, both personally and professionally, it's difficult for me to understand why people refuse to take her seriously. I suspect a lot of it has to do with offhanded impressions about the The Oprah Winfrey Show, television talk shows in general, or indeed Oprah herself. Honestly, I don't have much tolerance for critics who disparage or dismiss the Oprah phenomenon without studying it intensively, in all of its complexity and over the long-term. I don't embrace all-things-Oprah by any means, yet it seems pretty clear to me that she's transformed and even enriched U.S. culture in countless ways.

I'm excited, therefore, to see this week's edition of the media blog In Medias Res devoted to the theme of Oprah. Here's the lineup:
  • Monday: "Stories of O: Oprah's Culture Industries" by Kimberly Springer
  • Tuesday: "Too Big to Fail" by Janice Peck
  • Wednesday: "For the Sake of the Children" by John Howard
  • Thursday: "I've Been Rich and I've Been Poor: The Economics of Oprah" by Vanessa Jackson
  • Friday: "Oprah's Got Beef?: Alleged Matriarchies and Masculinist Rhymes" by Kimberly Springer
I'm looking forward to seeing how the series of posts unfolds. I find that academic authors tend to be extremely cynical towards Oprah, both the person and the broader phenomenon, and so I'm keeping my fingers crossed here. Hopefully the contributors will give such complex subject matter its due.

You can expect to see me leaving comments on IMR throughout the week, since, clearly, this is a topic that's been with me for a good long while. I'd encourage you to chime in, too. In the meantime, enjoy the Letterman-Oprah-Leno ad from last night's Superbowl.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Before Biggy & Tupac

Before the ill-fated East Coast-West Coast rap rivalry, there was this one: Englishman John Maynard Keynes versus Austrian Friedrich von Hayek. Biggy and Tupac battled it out to determine who was more gangsta. These guys, on the other hand, had a different beef: whose economic philosophy ought to prevail?
Both: "We've been goin' back and forth for a century."
Keynes: "I want to steer markets!"
Hayek: "I want them set free!"
Hilarious...and only in the age of YouTube.

Too bad my flow isn't better. Maybe then I'd be better able to explain the differences between Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau to my students.