by Raizel Liebler
Debora Halbert’s The State of Copyright: the complex relationship of cultural creation in a globalized world is an excellent academic entry to the study of the impact of copyright on our lives.
This is definitely an academic read, but manages to cover a wide swathe of different perspectives, including the power dynamic in defining what is copyrighted and copyrightable, through user-generated content. Halbert relies on a wide variety of different sources, from Rebecca Tushnet to Habermas, to illustrate her points, but perhaps surprisingly, doesn’t actually cite copyright law often. Instead, the book is concerned with how copyright and other intellectual property structures establish political economies of ideas and creativity, through nationalism, treaties, and ownership of much in the hands of the few.
Is there anything truly groundbreaking in this book? If you read almost every single new book on copyright (like me), probably not. But that is no reason to not read this book. Halbert is an excellent storyteller, deftly weaving the stories of Aaron Swartz’s attempted liberation of academic scholarship, the globalized origin of the 2010 World Cup theme song, Inuit Native peoples’ symbols into Olympic symbology, and Picasso’s use of African imagery in his art into her overall theme of copyright as a sword used to attack others. This is one of the only sources I’ve found to actually engage with Mark Helprin’s copyright maximalist position (copyright should last forever), finding that like the Author’s Guild, the push behind that viewpoint is to view copyright as no different than any other property right.
This book does an excellent job of both looking backwards to past and present copyright systems and to the issues with both localized and globalized copyright schemes — considering that what can work in one place and for one culture doesn’t necessarily work within another contexts. Halbert is aware of concerns about appropriation, authenticity, and exploitation: “the current state of the law has no method for dealing with a [complex] situation such as this except to assign a single ‘owner’ and protect the ‘rights’ of this owner from others.” She doesn’t shy away from making statements about how making intellectual property piracy into a national security issue makes ownership of rights to something intangible (with a expiration date!) equal to actual injury to people.
Summary: Read this book if you are looking for an important political read of the impact of copyright on the lives of those in the United States and globally. If you are looking for a guide to practical copyright, keep walking. This book would be a great text for teaching about understanding copyright policy (not the law!) for undergrads, grads, and law students, considering the large number of talking points throughout the book — and that each chapter could stand alone.