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Doonesbury savages Pepperland's copyright utopians

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As anyone involved with the original Apple Newton project knows only too well, when Garry Trudeau's satirical eye engages a target, there's only one winner. The Doonesbury cartoonist has a gift for holding up a mirror to bad ideas so they collapse under the weight of their own absurdities. This week[*] Trudeau has turned his attention to the "Creative Commons" project.

Beginning with Monday's comic, radio interviewer Mark questions aging rock star Jim Thudpucker about "free music". Thudpucker returns with a barrage of techno utopian babble that suggests he's been inhaling the heady vapors of the blogosphere.

"There are no rock stars any more!" insists Thudpucker. "With file sharing, we're being liberated from the hierarchical tyranny of record sales… Careers henceforth will be concert-driven, fragmented, and small!"

"And fan bases?" asks Mark.

"Will be kept in Palm Pilots!" replies the blog-brained Thudpucker.

This brilliant satire of the belief that technology can by itself topple entrenched institutions will be familiar to anyone who's picked up a copy of Wired in the last decade. Thudpucker is an ever-present type at any blogging convention. The conversation continued throughout the week, and we won't spoil any more of Trudeau's punchlines, except to note that he captures the other worldliness of this strand of techno utopian idiocy very sweetly.

What's wrong with this picture?

Well, there's nothing wrong with utopianism in itself: it's simply a wish for a better world, and we should all be able to imagine something better. But when utopianism becomes a denial and a retreat from the real world, it serves no useful purpose. It becomes a distraction, draining time and energy from what can be achievable. And like fringe political activism, it can eventually become no more than a psychological crutch for its advocates.

Creative Commons - launched by Professor Lawrence Lessig after a catastrophic Supreme Court defeat two years ago, which set back the copyright reform cause by many years - is one such noble idea.

But there are reasons why the campaign - widely blogged, but even more widely ignored - has failed to gain much traction.

Broadcaster Bill Thompson picked on one reason why the campaign has got nowhere fast. (Try calling the Creative Commons office in the hope of finding a human on the other end of the line and you'll realize another - there's no one home.)

But Thompson highlights the legalistic, American-centric basis of the campaign.

"Lessig doesn't understand why people in Europe care about an author's moral rights, which are inalienable in European law. And because he doesn't understand, he dismisses it. To an American constitutional lawyer copyright is simply an economic matter," Thompson told us.

"I have an objection to the British National Party using something I wrote in their party political broadcasts. That's my right."

"I'm a critical supporter of Creative Commons, but I don't accept US hegemony in this or any other area."

So Creative Commons is emblematic of how even the best of the US fails to understand how the rest of the world works. Is this a failure of empathy? Or a deeper philosophical failure which places too much emphasis on the law, and therefore "hacking" the law? Your thoughts, as ever, are most welcome. As we know, you can't throw an iPod in the United States without it hitting either a lawyer or an economist. And look where they've got us.

Fortunately we have more practical remedies to such escapist fantasies to hand. We only need to put them to work.®

Bootnote:Big Reg oops: Trudeau's strip, which captures the flavor of the debate today, was originally published two years ago. And as the Professor says, you can't hold the cause responsible for the wilder fantasies of its supporters. Quite correct.

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