Thursday, May 7, 2015

Poetics of Wheelbarrows and Copyright

There is an all-to-believable scene in Robert Heinlein’s novel about an engineer who builds a bomb shelter, Farnham’s Freehold. Poor Farnham, emerging to rebuild after the apocalypse, realizes he forgot to include something… a wheelbarrow. I can relate, although I grew up using one. We always kept our barrow tipped over so that rain would not collect and rust out the bottom. Strange to think that in the Middle Ages they still hadn’t invented wheelbarrows yet. Or buttons.

Here’s a poem by William Carlos Williams
The Red Wheelbarrow

So much depends
 a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

To me, this is a modern poem, since all the other poems I have memorized could be found in a 1940’s era poem collection, from a decade before I was born. This poem I have heard my college English teacher recite—it’s such a lovely piece. But is it still under copyright? Since it’s modern and doesn’t rhyme I don’t know. (I found out)

I do know I cheer for the inventions of copyright and patent laws, inventions that are figuratively like a wheelbarrow for carrying supplies for everyone into the future.

Back home, with our wheelbarrow in the background, we raised two black calves, Angus and Dina, of the Aberdeen Angus breed.

Suppose here on the prairies you were trying to grow a couple of cows.  Suppose you ended up battling blizzards to return them to the barn, hand feeding them during sickness, and struggling to fatten them during them health. And just when you’re ready to take them to auction—someone steals them. Next year you bust a gut to raise two more, next year rustled again. Could anyone blame you if you said, “Ah, forget it, let my neighbors eat vegetables.”

The law of “risk to reward” means that safer investments pay less, risky ones pay more—if they ever pay off. Looking for oil is so risky, yet so important to society, that government will give “wildcatters” special tax incentives.

If digging dry holes is risky, so is any attempt at creation and invention. In Robert Heinlein’s novel Friday a man spends years in poverty, working down in his dark basement, trying to invent a power source out of a stone. Against long odds he succeeds. Shouldn’t he, at last, make a lot of money? Or should everybody and their dog be allowed to rustle his idea without having to endure poverty down below ground? And if his idea gets rustled, then why would any other inventor, with eyes to see, ever choose to live in poverty chasing a dream, a dream so likely to be ripped off? “Ah, forget it, let my neighbors waste fossil fuels.”

Will you spend your man-hours in trying to invent a better wheelbarrow? Unlikely. Or in composing a wheelbarrow song? Unlikely. Yet without progress, our community loses. We lose if nobody creates any new hardware, software, songs or books.

The backdrop of Friday is a dysfunctional society, without a sense of good citizenship, in a world where the inventor despairs of legal protection after applying for a patent. He thinks people will go read the patent, and then break the law by producing their own power stones. In despair, he proceeds to fabricate his stones in a secure windowless factory without applying for patent rights. This works out: Nobody learns the secret of the power stones. Unfortunately for his neighbors, long after the period of patent/copyright would have been over, the stones are still a secret, and so society doesn’t get to make them in great cheap quantities. Serves them right. If only folks had worked to establish a sound democracy with respect for laws that serve the community.

The natural law of “risk to reward” won’t exist in our universe if pirates are allowed to do violence to the laws of patent and copyright.

As a music lover I sometimes wonder if, during my lifetime, because of pirates, composing rock music of the more creative sort, as in the 1960’s, will become as uneconomical as composing classical music or poetry. Perhaps musicians will settle for keeping a less risky but more secure day job. Or perhaps musicians will resort to having a fulltime lifestyle of touring while affording only a timid nest egg, touring to merely entertain, too timid to bother people with artsy innovations. No Dylan standing on stage unplugged. Or unclothed.

This morning I did some research: In Canada, The Red Wheelbarrow has been public domain for two years, since the writer is fifty-two years dead. In the U.S. it will take another 23 years. Why? Perhaps it’s because congress thinks fifty years is not enough time for a poet to give money to his children (to pass on to their children) but I think it’s because corporations like Disney are immortal institutions. I value artists. Institutions? Not so much.

I was with artists just last month doing Spoken Word Poetry. As for words and names, my ethic for pronouncing names in the public domain is this: If a person or a character in a book has been dead fifty years, then his feelings won’t be hurt, and so I won’t pronounce his name foreign-style. Unless maybe his name is fun to say, like Tigger or Jean Val Jean. When I have my nose in Les Miserables, Marcus and Inspector Javert and all the rest of get their names Anglicized. Mister Paris is not “Paree”, and Bonaparte is not “Emperrorr Napoleonne.”

Of course, if I had the nerve, then my tongue and I could stand in front of a mirror practicing shifting gears to cope with alien pronunciations, but I won’t expect normal people to do that. Except for, maybe, art collectors with ample leisure time. So my ethic of Anglicizing remains.

This morning, when I didn’t immediately know if I could publish Williams’s wheelbarrow poem, I took the time to find out. I wasn’t about to risk being a lazy good-for-nothing pirate.

Sean Crawford

~Yes dear reader, I’ve seen Lieutenant Tom Paris playing the part of Captain Proton on that fine feminist TV series Star Trek Voyager. (Link to a Roger Ebert essay)

~I have an essay on Pirates and Prohibition, with links, archived in April 2012

What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism by Alan B. Krueger, Princeton University Press, link

~Are software patents evil? In an essay with that title, my favorite nerd, Paul Graham, wrote it would take him several weeks of research to determine whether patents have been a net win for encouraging innovation. You can find all sorts of his essays here (link).

Focus on Imperialism
Everyone has heard of “Yankee imperialism.” Some years back the Yanks imperialized each other, you might say, with their “Disney amendment” which gives a much longer life, another generations worth, to copyright law.

Do Yankees value imperialism and money more than, say, discouraging war?
Despite some protests, Americans were selling scrap iron to the fascist Japanese war machine, mainly for use against innocent Asians, right up until the Japanese threw it back in their faces at Pear Harbor.

Once a war starts, do U.S. citizens value imperialism more than winning?
It’s been scientifically shown that terrorism is associated NOT with “poverty and despair” but rather, with a lack of civil liberties. How unconscionable then, to Muslim eyes, that during the War on Terror, at the dying of the Arab spring, the U.S. sold military supplies to strengthen the regime in Egypt.

Not only that, they twisted Egypt’s arm, with Secretary of State John Kerry making a special trip to do the twisting, to take a big U.S. loan, without attaching any requirements for civil liberties or human rights whatsoever. That’s crazy. That’s as crazy as trying to fight two wars at once.

Is it impolite to burst a U.S. citizen’s bubble of “plausible deniability?”
The greater social good trumps a “bad truth.” Here in Calgary, despite our high percentage of American workers, when a petroleum engineer did a speech exposing a U.S. fruit company, at my Toastmasters International club, he did not stop to be polite. He did not ask first whether any U.S. citizens were present who might be offended. And I won’t worry about my essay being polite.

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