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What the Internet’s free culture has cost us in art

September 2, 2015 at 6:10 PM EST
In the burgeoning days of the Internet, everything was free, says author Joshua Cohen. Or at least it felt free. And then he started writing for himself, learning the pride of making something and receiving the spark of recognition. In this NewsHour essay, he offers a reflection on the value of intellectual property and the evil of piracy.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we close with an essay: a new occasional feature on the NewsHour bringing, we hope, a fresh perspective on provocative issues.

Tonight, we hear from author Joshua Cohen. He gives us his thoughts on the value of intellectual property, such as inventions, literary and artistic works, and what it means when it’s stolen.

JOSHUA COHEN, Author: What’s the only thing that a pirate is afraid of. The daaaark.

I remember hearing that joke when I was 10 years old. I remember the guy I heard it from. His name was Herman Pollack ph. He was an older guy around the synagogue and he had a lot of jokes, and a lot of them were about pirates.

Why did the pirate quit his ship to write poetry? He did it for the love of the aaaarts.

Anyway, this guy from the synagogue told these jokes to me, and he told them to me free of charge. And now NewsHour is paying me to tell them to you. How do I justify this? Do I owe Herman Pollack or his heirs a percentage of whatever I’m earning?

A few years after I heard the jokes was the first time I went online, 1994. This was the first time online for a lot of people. In many ways, mine was a test generation. Everything was free for us or felt free. We wanted some music, we downloaded it. We wanted to print out a photo and hang it on the wall, so what? We downloaded books, or e-books, with a single click. Woe downloaded games. It all seemed like a game.

There was so much to hear and see and read. We played around in the imagination of strangers, or whoever it was who produced all this stuff. They weren’t even strangers. They weren’t even human. Culture just came out of the void.

I remember clicking on some site full of jokes, and some of the jokes on the site, I already knew. And I remember that feeling. None of this was created by anyone. It was all just here to begin with.

But then I started writing for myself, and I came to know the months, the years it took to make something and the pride of having made something, how it feels to receive credit for bringing a reader a spark.

Now, I take credit, and not money, because the chief evil of piracy or intellectual property theft or whatever you choose to call it is not that it deprives me and other artists of a living, but that it deprives the audience and even the art itself of a life.

It’s my belief that culture has to be paid for, if not with money or even praise, then with time and attention. There are more things to hear and see and read than ever before, but the cheaper it is to get your hands on them, the cheaper your appreciation of them will be.

The cost of a thing is the care you give it. Fact is, you could rip off a million books, but they’re not truly yours if you’re not going to read them. Songs aren’t songs if they’re never heard. Films aren’t films if they’re never watched. Canons can’t survive, they can’t evolve if the memory they animate is your computers, and not your own.

Culture must be lived. It must be active. It can’t just be in a folder on your desktop or a bundle of bytes on your hard drive. Herman Pollack, the man who told me the pirate jokes, seemed to love pirate jokes because they were about language, they were about puns, and English was the fourth language he spoke.

He learned these jokes, and they taught him the language. Herman grew up in a world that didn’t have as many books as ours does. And what decent books that world had, it tended to burn. Because Herman didn’t have such free access to books, he took to memorizing any he could find. Memorizing these books was how he earned them, how he owned them.

His memory of them was his truest possession. No one could take that away from him, which reminds me. Why don’t pirates ever learn the alphabet? Because after A and B, they spend all their lives at C.

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