Sunday, January 22, 2006

The fight for free intellectual property: Extreme edition

I think this project to create Islam-friendly comic books in the Middle East, though perfectly legal under traditional copyright law, nevertheless says something about the stakes over which we fight to liberate Mickey Mouse. "Free culture" is about more than the number of TV channels from which we'll have to chose. It's about how and to what extent culture evolves. Here's an excerpt from the NY Times profile:

The story concerns 99 gems encoded with the wisdom of Baghdad just as the Mongols are invading the city in the 13th century - in his version, to destroy the city's knowledge. The gems are the source of not only wisdom but power, and they have been scattered across the world, sending some 20 superheroes (at least in the first year, leaving another 49 potential heroes for future editions) on a quest to find them before an evil villain does. "To create the new, you have to tap into the old," Mr. Mutawa says of the deep historic connections in the comic.

The prospects look good for our heroes, don't they? Well, watch out! Back to the Times:

The religious dimension is the biggest risk for a product whose main market, like all new products in the region, is oil-rich Saudi Arabia, where religion and entertainment rarely mix. Mr. Mutawa has already witnessed the frustration of having a book banned. "Get Your Ties Out of Your Eyes," a children's book featuring Bouncy, a ball who wears a tie - but differently than others - was banned in Kuwait because it seemed to be commenting on the Koran.

"When you're in a place where Bouncy Book 3 doesn't pass the censors, you have to be very creative," he said.

I guess what captures is me is that a seeming natural intellectual outgrowth of a culture--one seemingly with a broad audience awaiting it--nevertheless could be barred on principle for extraneous reasons. I suppose I usually file "censorship" and "conservatism" and "free speech" in different parts of my brain from issues of "free culture," but this story got them firing at once. It made me think cultural stigma, government censorship and private copyright are all just different ways of protecting some ideas at the expense of others--and in the process restricting what everybody thinks and determining the characteristics of our culture.

Probably I'm sympathetic to comic books. If this were about protecting muslim public school cafeterias from Cheez Whiz, I might not have thought twice about it. But a free market in ideas is a nice idea too.

No comments: