'Digital Barbarism' Wages Online Copyright Battle Two years ago, author Mark Helprin's op-ed urging the extension of copyright protection inspired a huge online backlash. A new book is his response to the uproar, but opponents are still having their say.
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'Digital Barbarism' Wages Online Copyright Battle

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'Digital Barbarism' Wages Online Copyright Battle

'Digital Barbarism' Wages Online Copyright Battle

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Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

(Soundbite of knocking)

LYDEN: Good morning. How are you?

We're in the rolling hills of central Virginia at the home of author Mark Helprin. He wrote the novel, "A Soldier of the Great War" and "Winter's Tale," among many others. Two years ago he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that inspired a huge Internet backlash. He's written a book about that called "Digital Barbarism: A Writer's Manifesto." But before we talk about that, Helprin shows me his home library.

Mr. MARK HELPRIN (Author): It's 16 feet high by 50 feet long and there are approximately in this one wall, there's about 8,000 books.

LYDEN: I take a closer look. I am climbing the two-story ladder up to the crow's nest. And I'm looking as we go, here's "A Soldier of the Great War," and now I'm up to "Freddie and Frederica." This is the...

Mr. HELPRIN: Italian.

LYDEN: Italian edition, national New York Times' top best-seller.

Mr. HELPRIN: And (unintelligible) you will meet - okay, now, look down, Jacki.

LYDEN: I don't want to look down.

Helprin treasures physical books but worries that their days may be numbered. About 30 years ago, he had a conversation with his father. The older man remembered the first movie he saw as a kid.

Mr. HELPRIN: It was the first time that he had ever seen motion that was not in real life, in other words, a depiction which was moving, a moving picture. He said: and then, they put this on celluloid. And then they made into talkies. And then it became color, and then it became television, et cetera, et cetera. And this was 1975.

He didn't know about Moore's Law. But what he said was that he had observed that over time it was possible to compress more and more information into a smaller and smaller space. And he said so what I have figured is that if you're going to do this, because I just sold my first book, you've got about 25 or 30 years.

He said afterwards it's going to change radically, and he was right on. I mean he knew exactly what he was talking about.

LYDEN: Well, let me talk about this little essay that you wrote a couple of years ago for the New York Times. Your argument was that authors should hold on to their copyright works much, much longer. I doubt that may necessarily mean forever, but longer than 70 years...

Mr. HELPRIN: Well - yeah.

LYDEN: ...which is the current limit after the author's death. And on the surface, it seemed like an interesting thesis and something that might make waves in literally circles, but not outside that really. How many comments did you get on that piece, Mark?

Mr. HELPRIN: I got three quarters of a million nasty comments.

LYDEN: Did you feel like a monk who had wandered into Shea Stadium or Times Square?

Mr. HELPRIN: Well, I felt like someone selling rsaries in Mecca, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELPRIN: But I have to add that The Times, according to the editor's sacred prerogative, said a great idea lives forever. Why shouldn't its copyright? First of all, you can't copyright an idea. It's not in the purview of copyright so...

LYDEN: So it's the size title that you didn't choose.

Mr. HELPRIN: (Unintelligible), I'll say. And secondly, I did not endorse nor would I ever endorse a perpetual copyright, because in the Constitution it says, for limited times. And as an originalist, I don't screw around with the Constitution. My idea was to extend another 10 or 20 years so that it would benefit grandchildren, as well as children.

LYDEN: Let me ask you about your book because you then - you have just written this new book called "Digital Barbarism." And you argue that the first target of what you call the barbarians is copyright and the individual voice. And I would like to ask you a little bit, who are you identifying, or why you identifying as barbarism, and who are the barbarians?

Mr. HELPRIN: I mean...

LYDEN: Or are you being funny?

Mr. HELPRIN: Oh no. No, no, no. I'm absolutely serious. I think it's a new type of barbarism, in which the possession of power is the determinant of action. The fact is that the digitalization makes it very easy to copy things as music piracy and video piracy, and then eventually now, book piracy too. They're all (unintelligible) and it's barbaric in that people say we have the power to do this now, therefore we will. There is no restraint to this power. That's barbarist.

LYDEN: So you're talking about your dad's perspicacity. And he had an idea about where you would be 30 years hence. What do you think the role of the author will be 30 years from now?

Mr. HELPRIN: I dread it because I think that the - what I call the individual voice may be subsumed in a kind of a collective coordination in which there isn't much of an individual voice left. And it's the ability of someone to go in and change. And this is part of, by the way, what for many in this movement is a great attraction, which they call remix. That to me is - that's a nightmare.

LYDEN: Or match-ups, literary match-ups.

Mr. HELPRIN: Yes, exactly. And let me say...

LYDEN: (Unintelligible) one-time prejudice and zombies.

Mr. HELPRIN: Yeah. Once it's out of copyright one can do that. Presumably it's had enough time to set in the public mind. But if there were no copyright or if a copyright were truncated, no, that would be a real nightmare. Let me tell you a story about that, if I may.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HELPRIN: In my younger days, I wrote a lot of speeches. There was one instance where I wrote a speech and the White House got back to me and said, oh, we really like this and we're going to use parts of it. And I said, no, you're not. And they said, well, what do you mean? Are we going to use so and so, and so and so? I said, no, you're not going to use it. You're not going to change a word unless I agree. And you will not chop it up and you will not take from it. And they said, well, who are you to dictate to us? I said, essentially - I didn't use this language - but I say, essentially like, hey, baby, this is copyrighted.

It was like holding up a cross in front of a vampire. Even the president of the United States could not force a change in what I had written because it was copyrighted. And I think that is really, really important because who the hell am I, you know? I have no power, but this gives power to me as an individual, and therefore, by extension, to every single individual person in the country.

LYDEN: Mark Helprin. His new book "Digital Barbarism: A Writer's Manifesto" hits the stores this week.

One of the most prominent opponents to Helprin's idea to extend copyright has been Lawrence Lessig. He's a professor of law at Stanford and the founder of Creative Commons, a system that allows creators to opt out of certain copyright protections. Unlike Helprin, he believes in the power of group collaboration to build ideas. So instead of writing a response himself, he crafted a Wiki and asked his followers to work together to write a response.

He says that he understands Helprin's concerns about intellectual work being altered. But Lessig says, when you're a published author, it comes with the territory.

Professor LAWRENCE LESSIG (Law School, Stanford University): What comes with that is a recognition that my ideas and my writing at some point will be free for others to build on and change and criticize, or ridicule, however the public chooses to do it. If I don't want my work used in that way, I'm perfectly free to write a diary that I keep in my desk that nobody gets access to.

LYDEN: You can hear my interview with Lawrence Lessig and read an excerpt from Mark Helprin's new book "Digital Barbarism" at our Web site, npr.org.

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