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Imagine if today's far-reaching laws on copyright and trademark were sent back in time to the days of William Shakespeare. On the opening day of Romeo and Juliet, the heirs of first-century Roman poet Ovid would surely have filed the case of Estate of Ovid v. William Shakespeare, alleging that the Bard had made unauthorized use of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which is also based on two lovers from warring families. The legal conflict would have scared off theaters, and the play would have dropped into obscurity. It might seem ridiculous, but David Bollier, author of Brand Name Bullies, says this scenario is common under today's copyright and trademark law, which he calls "replete with tales of the bizarre and hilarious."
Bollier is co-founder of Public Knowledge, a non-profit group that aims to defend the "information commons." In Brand Name Bullies, he argues that creativity and free speech are being shut down as entertainment conglomerates and other companies push intellectual-property law to unprecedented extremes. The result is a sweeping privatization of culture and knowledge with the connivance of Congress and the courts. It is a dangerous development, Bollier suggests, because science and creativity are built upon what others have done before us. At the heart of his book are dozens of real-life stories he says show how silly things have gotten. In one case, Warner Bros. threatened young fans of the Harry Potter movies with legal action after they created Web sites to celebrate and discuss Potter. In another case, Disney challenged an anti-pornography group for quoting a single line of Walt Disney's in a brochure. Bollier also cites filmmaker Spike Lee's suit against Viacom over its Spike TV network. Even though there have been many other famous "Spikes" in American culture, Lee claimed Viacom chose the network's name to trade on his reputation. He won an injunction against the company, which agreed to an out-of-court settlement and said it incurred $17 million in losses in the case. Through these stories, Bollier succeeds in making a knotty but important legal issue both accessible and relevant for readers. --Alex Roslin
Starred Review. Societys growing mania to "propertize" every idea, image, sound and scent that impinges on our consciousness is ably dissected in this hilarious and appalling exposé of intellectual property law. Bollier, author of Silent Theft, compiles a long litany of copyright and trademark excesses, many of them familiar from brief flurries of media coverage but, in his view, no less outrageous for it. Music royalty consortium ASCAP sought fees from the Girl Scouts for singing copyrighted songs around the campfire; McDonalds threatened businesses with the Mc prefix in their names; Disney threatened a day-care center that painted Mickey and Goofy on its walls; and Mattel sued a rock band that dared satirize Barbie in song. Nor is it only corporate megaliths that resort to this petty legal thuggery. Martin Luther Kings estate forbids unauthorized use of his "I Have a Dream" speech (but rents it to Telecom ad campaigns), and the author of a completely silent composition was asked for royalties because it allegedly infringed on avant-garde composer John Cages own completely silent composition. Bollier is a sure guide through the thickets of intellectual property law, writing in an engaging style that spotlights capitalism and its supporting cast of lawyers at their most absurd. But he probes a deeper problem: as the public domain becomes a private monopoly, he warns, our open society, which depends on the free, collective elaboration of a shared "cultural commons," will wither away. Photos.
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