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  • Copyrighting Ideas
  • War in Algeria
  • America's Future
  • Tango in Argentina

    Copyrighting Ideas

    Charles C. Mann's article on the emerging pushes and pulls on copyright law ("Who Will Own Your Next Good Idea?," September Atlantic), with its oh-so-moving James Brown story, ignores one crucial particular. The owners of most U.S. copyrights are not struggling creative artists and software writers, or even the estates of deceased creative workers, but corporations. Some of them acquire these rights by publishing the work in question. Today most publishers are owned by corporate conglomerates that put the rest of their time, energy, and capital into petroleum, railroads, real estate, and other heavy-duty money-making.

    The other path to corporate ownership of creative work is one that at least until recently had no counterpart in more civilized countries -- the "work made for hire." If an employee in the United States creates something even remotely related to his or her job, under U.S. law the copyright to that work belongs to the employer. Some of the more egregious "copyright-violation" cases recently in the courts involved disputes between the "owners" of such works and their actual creators. Usually the creators lost.

    So copyright utopians like Stallman and Barlow, although they may not have figured out all the answers for the struggling creator trying to survive, are at least asking the right questions.

    Marian Henriquez Neudel



    Does the Internet really undermine copyright protection by making infringers ubiquitous? I don't think so. Copyright laws have never been aimed at people passing a work on to their friends. They've been aimed at economic infringement. A wholesale pirate on the Internet is going to have to advertise!

    A good Internet search will turn up the pirates in a few minutes. Anyone who wants to protect his work can do it and prosecute the offenders. I can't tell you how many times I've clicked on a site and found it shut down because it contained unauthorized copyrighted works. If there's any change, it's in favor of us copyright holders. We never had search engines before.

    Stephen D. Froikin



    Charles Mann fails to mention one of the worst attributes of the attempt to extend the copyright monopoly: we no longer require copyright notices.

    Most communications are not commercial in nature. The author writes them not for pay but because he desires to communicate his thoughts to others. The letters in this column are examples. In general this is true of most of our communications: Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, the millions of "public" messages on the Internet, the recall letter about my car, my brother's family newsletter, the campaign flyers stuffed in my door.

    Yet in an overextension of protection of those seeking economic gain, all this is now "copyrighted." We no longer require the author to put a copyright notice on the work. In regard to copying and the dissemination of speech we have reached the point where "that which is not expressly permitted is prohibited." It is a sorry, indefensible state of affairs in a country that has long held free discourse as a core value. Copyright's purpose was to encourage that discourse, not reduce it.

    John H. Lederer





    As John Lederer's letter shows, Marian Neudel is wrong. Almost all written and pictorial expression -- every memo, diary entry, college paper, snapshot, and doodle -- is automatically copyrighted by its author. So are almost all novels, songs, paintings, and sculpture. The only exceptions I am aware of are commercial movies and computer programs. Nonetheless, Ms. Neudel is right about the recent increase in work-for-hire contracts (although many of the battles she refers to are covered by trade-secret law, state legislation that is not part of federal intellectual-property law). Her dislike of work-for-hire contracts makes all the more puzzling her snideness about James Brown, who spent years trying to free African-American musicians from them. Finally, Stephen Froikin's optimism about search engines is misplaced. As I noted in the article, search engines index only a small portion of the Web. And even if they do catch infringers, they can't do anything about people in rogue states -- several Eastern European nations come to mind -- where pirates are in effect an arm of the government.

    War in Algeria

    I was disappointed with Roger Kaplan's piece "The Libel of Moral Equivalence" (August Atlantic). In essence, Kaplan portrays the struggle in Algeria as between liberal democracy and Islamist obscurantism. Elections there are the "big story, with implications for the ability of Islamic cultures to accept modernity." But they have been ignored, because "Algerian society was under attack by a militant political movement flying the banner of Islam." Lest anyone suppose that this movement represented a part of Algerian society and its opinions, he explains, "The emirs and their drugged acolytes -- drugged on evil brews of false religion and politics ... had lost their bid to overthrow the Algerian state and were determined to bring down as many people with them as they could."

    This is classic, if extreme, developmentalist dogma, according to which modernity can only be accepted or rejected, and benighted opponents of progress are to be pushed out of the way. In Algeria's war for independence, too, rebels were branded as religious fanatics who wanted to return to the Middle Ages. In fact, like some Islamist groups, the National Liberation Front (FLN) practiced mass reprisals against "disloyal" areas, banned children from school, and killed schoolteachers. Then, too, the government granted amnesty to the repentant and won elections overwhelmingly, despite FLN boycotts backed by death threats. The French would not allow rebels to participate, explaining that the first such vote would be the last. Like Kaplan's interlocutors, they compared their opponents to Hitler and argued that any dialogue amounted to appeasement.

    Yet Islamists are not the only ones who are barred from effectively participating in elections. Although Kaplan is silent on the issue, all Algeria's independent newspapers complain about election rigging. "Though used to electoral fraud, large sections of the population have been profoundly shocked by the extent," according to El Watan. "The shared feeling is that Algeria has started out on a road towards a long journey in time, but backwards." This is hardly the "dramatic evolution ... toward liberal democracy" that Kaplan describes. Indeed, some Algerians blame the government's own illiberalism for allowing "the libel of moral equivalence" to arise.

    To read Kaplan, one might suppose that only a few, anonymous Westerners have been asking whether Algeria's government may be responsible for some of the atrocities. Though he does not name them, the UN high commissioner for human rights and the secretary general of Amnesty International are among those who have been calling for an international inquiry. But many Algerians, too, have held both the government and the Islamists responsible for the violence. As Salima Ghezali, the winner of the 1997 Sakharov Prize, recently wrote, "To choose a side, isn't this simply to choose one's victims?" It seems particularly ill-advised for outsiders to rush to judgment now that the government has finally allowed a UN team, under Mario Soares, to begin a fact-finding mission.

    Most observers have demanded an outside inquiry because they realize that accounts of the war in what's left of the Algerian media must reflect the government line. The state monopolizes presses and newsprint and shuts down publications that displease it -- including Ghezali's own weekly. In many cases official Algerian Press Service reports are simply reprinted. Stories, for instance, of abducted Algerian girls made to serve as sex slaves eventually appear in The New York Times without anyone's attempting independent verification along the way. In contrast to the gripping accounts of bloody massacres attributed to the Islamists, reports on government operations simply restate official casualty figures -- which rarely record any wounded or captured alongside the slain, and never reveal noncombatant casualties.

    Though Kaplan is to be commended for having gone to Algeria, he might have pointed out that any journalist who attempts to work there without a cordon of security guards is immediately expelled -- hardly ideal conditions in which to conduct candid interviews. He might also have mentioned that earlier this year the government arrested anti-Islamist militia commanders after mass graves were uncovered. This discovery corroborated reports by Robert Fisk in the Independent, in which a number of former security agents admitted to participating in torture and summary executions and described how government forces sometimes impersonated Islamists while carrying out their crimes.

    I hope The Atlantic will find a way to offer a more persuasive explanation of the Algerian tragedy than the emirs, drugs, and "evil brews" that Kaplan has conjured up.

    Matthew Connelly





    The Soares mission for the United Nations completed its report in September, and although it did not claim to be a definitive or even a particularly thorough piece of research, its conclusions weren't notably different from those in my article.

    Stories purportedly based on the confessions of police defectors who had participated in "death-squad" activities did indeed appear in the European press and in Le Monde last year, but the defectors were later shown to have been in Europe at the time of the crimes they claimed to have witnessed. There have been cases of brutal incarceration and rigorous interrogations of suspects, and early on in the troubles a Committee Against Torture arose, whose name was surely chosen for a reason, and many of whose members -- to the best of my knowledge -- have supported the admittedly contradictory policy of "reform and fight" that successive governments have followed.

    Algerians will choose for themselves what balance they want to achieve between "modernity" and "tradition." It is scarcely here that we are going to refight the Algerian revolution, and everyone knows that the National Liberation Front was, as its name suggested, an independence movement with various tendencies. The point is that it represented "modernity" in the sense that it was the alternative to an untenable, racist, colonialist situation that could not change on its own. (In the end the French army was trying, much too late of course, to institute a "revolution" against both the FLN and the European Algerians.) The Algerians are not fighting over "models of development"; they are fighting to defend their state and their communities, knowing well that the politicians they serve are often mediocre, that public opinion is fickle, and that international observers are condescending.

    America's Future

    Robert D. Kaplan's utter ignorance of Canada ("Travels Into America's Future," August Atlantic), its history and its people, deserves a complete rebuttal, so here goes.

    Kaplan begins his article with the absurdity that Canada did not have to struggle for independence from Britain. He forgets that we up here have fought civil wars (1837 and 1838) and insurrections (1870 and 1886), separatists (beginning in the 1870s and continuing to this day) and invaders (mostly from the south). We have been in actual armed conflict for much of our history; we have had well over thirty different wars in less than 400 years of settlement; we have burned down our own legislature; and it took more than 190 years from our initial push for independence from Britain, in 1791, until we patriated our constitution, in 1982. (So much for Kaplan's statement that Britain forced us to unite!)

    Kaplan also says that Canada is "split by a blood-and-soil linguistic nationalism." Contrary to his belief, the country is still very much intact. Canada is that rare place where you can actually criticize the very concept of the place's existence without being labeled a traitor. I live in Quebec, trace my family right back to Wolfe's army, and am a Canadian, just as are many of my friends and neighbors who fundamentally disagree with me about where we should be taking this country in the future. There are no sure things in building a nation, but I am confident that Canada is a healthier concept than the United States is -- and far less likely to end up as a military dictatorship. In fact, the greatest threat to our continuing existence is that very threat of dictatorship south of our border. That is why we must never succumb to the economic temptation of depending on the United States for our defense.

    Kaplan says that "the Saint Lawrence River and the Great Lakes formed enough of a natural boundary for an Atlantic-oriented nation to take root." The fact is that the Saint Lawrence River is the border for only about ninety miles, from Cornwall to Kingston, Ontario. The entire border, more than 1,000 miles east of Cornwall, is a land border! Kaplan fails to realize that the United States' refusal to accept Canada as an equal trading partner at any time, up to and including the point at which NAFTA was passed, is why Canada oriented itself toward the North Atlantic. It had nothing to do with our southern border geography, and everything to do with the aggressive foreign policy of our southern neighbor.

    Kaplan's next comment is breathtakingly arrogant: "Canada is increasingly like the northern United States." Any reasonable observer of the relations between Canada and the border states would unequivocally say that those states are actually becoming more and more like Canada, not vice versa. The innovative and liberal agenda that has provoked so much reaction from far-right religious groups in the United States is being imported from your northern neighbor. We are influencing your domestic policy much more than you are influencing ours in every sphere of activity except one -- the economy. Our economy is too dependent on the U.S. economy for our own good, but even Kaplan noticed that your business leaders recognize a growing U.S. dependence on Canada.

    Greg MacDonald


    Although Robert Kaplan is certainly correct in his assertion that Portland, Oregon, is "architecturally pleasing" and "meticulously planned," he neglects to mention that this "stagy perfection" comes at great cost to the actors themselves -- that is, the residents and the homeless of downtown Portland, who have been hounded and reshuffled, Rudolph Giuliani-style, in order to transform Portland into a sparkling place where anxious suburbanites can feel comfortable shopping without hearing the dreaded requests for spare change. The same people who pay $65 to cheer on low-income bohemian squatters in the hit musical Rent are afraid to shop within a few blocks of real-life versions.

    Kaplan posits a kind of eco-conservative political consensus underpinning Portland's urbanism. But this consensus, where it exists, rests more on the wishes of big business to draw upper-income day-trippers downtown than on the shared background and values to which Kaplan points. How ironic that the photograph chosen to grace your magazine's table of contents shows Portland's Pioneer Square, a once-popular loitering area for local street youths. After a recent crackdown and riot, however, these youths have been harassed into relocation by a private security company. When a private security company is hired to patrol a seemingly public space, Portland becomes yet another example of a nationwide trend: the stripping away of civil liberties and the curtailment of truly public spaces in the interests of gentrification and economic revitalization.

    Adam Luedtke



    While reading Robert Kaplan's effusive description of Orange County, I was reminded of Joel Garreau's paean to autocentric sprawl-burbs in his book Edge City. Though seemingly out to investigate this posturban phenomenon, both writers ended their mission as staunch converts and defenders, sold on and seduced by the affluence, diversity, and vitality they perceived. This bizarre infatuation has clouded their judgment.

    Kaplan has it reversed. It is the Portland model for metropolitan development, with its urban-growth boundaries and civic enhancements, that is future-thinking and visionary, accommodating growth within a seamless and sensible fabric. The Orange County approach, with its haphazard, autocentric sprawl creeping across the countryside, represents the backward, status quo development of the past half century.

    Ricardo Hinkle





    Canada's independence from Britain was a passive affair, so much so that British Columbia did not join the Canadian federation until several years later, in 1871, and then only because it was bribed into doing so by construction of the transcontinental railroad. Whereas English-speaking Quebeckers cling desperately to the ideal of a strong Canada, British Columbians do not and never have. The Saint Lawrence River basin and the Great Lakes separated much of Canada's late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century population from the inhabitants to the south; thus my point stands.

    Tango in Argentina

    I've been to Buenos Aires twice, drawn there by my passion for the Argentine tango. I was surprised to find that Benjamin and Christina Schwarz ("Half a World Away," September Atlantic) didn't mention the "T" word once.

    Tango is ubiquitous in Buenos Aires. The cabdrivers listen to tango music on their radios. Tango dancers perform in the street during the Sunday-afternoon flea market in San Telmo. Tango singers entertain on El Caminito, in La Boca, and the cheesy souvenir shops in that colorful part of town are filled with postcards and T-shirts depicting dancing couples dressed in black. The singer mentioned at the Ideal Café was no doubt singing tangos. The famous Tortoni Café is in the same building as the Academia del Tango, where visiting dancers, making their pilgrimages to the tango mecca, pick up a guidebook that lists the phone numbers of shoemakers and tango masters. Tourists go to glitzy tango shows at nightclubs, and locals dance the more personal social version of this romantic and sophisticated dance at Milongas nightly. Newsstands in the center of town feature tango newsletters and magazines. Turn on a TV in Buenos Aires and you'll stumble on Tango Solo -- the all-tango all-the-time station.

    As a tango lover, I've grown accustomed to travel articles that focus on the nightclub tango shows and miss the wonderful social dance that brings together Argentines of all ages and visitors from around the world. But I had never before seen a story on Buenos Aires that failed to mention one of the most notable features of the city.


    Candida B. Korman





    As Candida Korman rightly insists (and as we mentioned in our article), Buenos Aires is famous for this passionate and fierce style of music and ballroom dance, and we certainly expected to hear and see it everywhere in the city. The trouble is, we didn't. To be sure, an extraordinary variety of tango tapes is available at music stores, but alas, not a single one of our cabdrivers was playing them. The singer in the Ideal was not, in fact, performing tangos, nor was anyone singing tangos on El Caminito on the days when we were there. The tango dancers at the San Telmo flea market were impressive, but the very fact that they were performing a demonstration for tourists left us with the impression that the tango -- like flamenco in Spain and the blues on Beale Street in Memphis -- is more a relic than a vital part of the natives' lives. Clearly, the expensive tango shows, while no doubt spectacular, are strictly for tourists; and although we understand that venues exist for serious tango devotees, nightclubs in Buenos Aires predominantly cater to those who want to dance to rock and disco (just as they do in the world's other great cities). All in all, not finding anything particularly nice to say about the health of the tango in Buenos Aires, we decided to say nothing at all. We could only report what we had experienced, and we're happy, for the sake of tango lovers, that Ms. Korman's experience has been different.


    The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; December 1998; Letters; Volume 282, No. 6; pages 12 - 21.



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