Sunday, April 18, 2010

A New Reality

After reading several reviews and seeing an acerbic interview with its author recently on “The Colbert Report,” I have been thinking about the new book “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto” by David Shields and its implications for intellectual property rights in our digital society. Shield’s book consists of 618 fragments, including hundreds of quotations taken from other writers, which the author has taken out of context (in some cases, even “revised, at least a little”), and for which he only acknowledges the sources in an appendix, added reluctantly at his publisher’s lawyers’ insistence. Shield’s scorns and is “bored by out-and-out-fabrication” and creativity, and interested in “reality-based art” based on “recombinant” or appropriation art.

Shield’s pasted-together book and defense of appropriation underscore the contentious issues of copyright, intellectual property and plagiarism that have become so prominent in our Internet culture. Even the teaching of visual culture has seen the erosion of the value of intellectual property rights with the ubiquity and ease of finding images of artists’ works with on the Web with the click of a button. With the closure or lack of development of local institutional image collections, many teaching faculty and students are left to forage the Web for images without thought to who produced the art or photographed the object. That digital media are remolding our social landscape, especially arts and entertainment, goes without saying. That they are certainly affecting the methodology of scholarship and research needs is also sadly evident.

It is incumbent on us as part of our consultancy with individuals and institutions over the preservation and digital conversion of image collections not to forget the moral obligation we have to honor intellectual property rights where appropriate. Ignorance is certainly bliss among some faculty I have known, who often ignore basic tenets of copyright (although I suspect that they may be more informed than they let on). Along with technical, preservation, access and metadata issues, we need to educate our clients in the basics of copyright law and tenets of fair use with regard to images. Fortunately, there are very good forums and sites where we can direct faculty and institutions to get the most up-to-date and authoritative information about copyright, especially since major developments and legal decisions affecting academia are occurring with some frequency lately.

The value of artistic imagination and originality, along with the primacy of the individual, is being increasingly questioned in our digital world. So we need to be vigilant where we are able, especially in academic and library settings, as we go about our evangelizing for wider digital access to the fruits of generations of visual artists. Intellectual property rights should also be a “reality” to us, even if the author David Shields would probably disagree. (By the way, I’ve decided that he may be an uncreative minor wacko.)

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