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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Because the tech-support people I need to talk to in order to straighten out a data analysis snafu are in Germany, creating temporal challenges, I’ve been catching up on reading. As a result, I had just read Carol Rose’s 1998 piece The Several Futures of Property: Of Cyberspace and Folk Tales, Emission Trades and Ecosystems when an email came in from with a petition against Nestlé’s attempt to patent the medicinal use of the fennel flower.

A few days before that, the monthly UC Berkeley newsletter had a story about scientists who were launching a drug company based on producing an antimalarial chemical synthetically in yeast instead of in its plants of origin. I was already familiar with the malaria example because my friend Josh Kellogg, who’s an ethnopharmacologist, was working on malaria treatments from natural sources as his PhD project until the money dried up in favor of synthetics—which, he pointed out to me, ultimately derive from knowledge of plant sources anyway (as in the Berkeley research case).

Perfect storm weeks like this get me thinking and make me want to work through connections, so that’s what I want to do here. I’ve written before about privatizing fandom and enclosing the commons, but Rose’s piece gave me a new angle on the commons that I think is useful for the work I’m doing on fandom in my dissertation—that of capitalist disrespect and appropriation of indigenous intellectual property.

Now, this is mine-filled territory, because it risks evoking the logic of pure, uncorrupted-by-civilization (and thus implicitly uncivilized) indigeneity I critiqued in The Trouble with Tribals.  So, to be clear, the idea of indigenous intellectual property is being used here to think with, to structurally or metaphorically denote a group with a different set of values than the dominant ones of capital and a different set of beliefs about ownership and individual creativity, which are devalued by the dominant both because of these different values and for other reasons (racism in the literal-indigeneity case and sexism/devaluation of emotion in the fan case).

The connection of intellectual property concerns to indigenous people is not novel—Rose herself notes that in the forms of property she discusses “both factors—unconventional communal claims and unrecognized social status—overlap and conspire against property recognition. Historically, this was perhaps most noticeable in European encounters with Native Americans” (p. 141). What I want to do here is work through what this looks like for fandom alongside this Nestlé case to see what this renders visible.

First, what we see in the Nestlé patent of longstanding knowledge and industry efforts to monetize fandom is that things known or produced by certain groups don’t count as owned by them.

On one hand, this is because the claims to property often don’t take recognizable shapes in these cases—as Rose puts it, they “do not look like property at all to us” (p. 140). Rose’s piece traces out a theory of a property format called “limited common property,” which is “property on the outside, commons on the inside” (p. 144). That is, it’s not a pure commons, because not everybody is eligible to exploit it, but those who are on the inside can make use of it as completely as is allowed within the norms of the community.

This, to me, looks a lot like fandom: everybody in the community has shared access to everybody else’s stories, vids, meta, etc., but—in part due to stigma—there’s a protective attitude in relation to outsiders. It’s also like the fennel flower case: “everybody knows” the value of the plant, but that doesn’t make it a free-for-all for capital.

Related to this, which Rose raises but doesn’t really delve into, is “questions of alienability” (p. 140); limited common property isn’t very alienable because, unlike standard property, no one person owns it, such that nobody can really sell it off, and particularly not for individual gain.

This, I think, is part of why “pulling to publish”—the practice of converting fan fiction into novels like 50 Shades of Gray by renaming the characters (and then deleting the original)—is often frowned upon in fan communities. Yes, a person wrote it, but they generally did so in a community. And indefinable but vital contributions arise from interaction with those community members, such that then denying them access is denying recognition for their labor in favor of the single creative figure of the author.

This isn’t necessarily nefarious (although it can be). Mostly I’d attribute it to the fact that “the author principle is easy”: “it is easier to identify a single author (or definite set of authors) than an amorphous group, like a ‘village’; it is easier to identify a sharply unusual intellectual product than one that builds incrementally on the ideas of others, like a folktale; it is easier to mark out a product of sudden innovation than a gradual modification of nature, like a village’s long-cultivated plant product” (Rose p. 152).

This is also what makes Nestlé’s grab make sense (from an intellectual property standpoint, though clearly not a moral one). The SumofUs email noted that “in a paper published last year, Nestlé scientists claimed to ‘discover’ what much of the world has known for millennia: that nigella sativa extract could be used for ‘nutritional interventions in humans with food allergy’.”

This claim to discovery works because the knowledge is common across “much of the world” and no one really owns it, so Nestlé sees an opening to claim ownership. The problem with this is alienability. “Nestlé is attempting to create a nigella sativa monopoly and gain the ability to sue anyone using it without Nestlé’s permission” (SumofUs); nobody owns it, but it’s because everybody owns it.

As Rose notes, “the extension of the author or inventor principle privileges the contributions of the industrialized West over those of non-Western cultures, among other matters by rejecting intellectual property status of folklore or for carefully cultivated plant products from third-world agrarian groups” (p. 151).

In this case, it’s even more absurd than usual, since Nestlé wasn’t even the first to translate this communal knowledge into the language of science—“researchers in developing nations such as Egypt and Pakistan had already published studies on the same curative powers Nestlé is claiming as its own” (SumofUs). But then, it may well be that those scientists don’t “count” in the same way as a multinational corporation.

This idea of limited common property is useful because it explains how people can seemingly share things freely and at the same time have a right not to have that appropriated by capital. But because these are nonstandard kinds of claims about property, based in nonstandard, more communal and less individualistic value systems, made by less-valued people, running over that right to not be appropriated is startlingly easy.

I find myself unable to muster a blog post this week. Not because I’m busier than usual, but because events this week have worn me down too much to try to contextualize them or think any big smart thoughts in their general direction. As one tweet put it:

So instead of a blog post—since (as I learned recently) one’s arrangement of other people’s work is considered creative labor enough to copyright (West Publishing Co. v. Mead Data Central, Inc., 1986), and I figure that also means it’s intellectual labor enough to be worth putting  up—a curated list of things I’ve found useful in making sense of the past week’s events. And yes, I could have (and maybe should have) used Storify, but I am making you visit my site instead.

via @j_l_r

(via @j_l_r)

On Boston and media:


Daren Brabham’s The Boston Marathon Bombings, 4Chan’s Think Tank, and a Modest Proposal for an Emergency Crowdsourced Investigation Platform at Culture Digitally, suggesting the benefits of crowdsourcing investigations.

And the rebuttal to such arguments:







Also, potential downsides to the constant flow of information:






Key Question: Has the sum of CNN’s terrible coverage decisions reached critical mass? (Or, as an alternative measure, New York Post level? The Apology the New York Post Should Have Issued, via @mikemonello and @kouredios)

First, CNN had Steubenville and only worrying about the boys’ ruined lives, then reporting an arrest inaccurately, and then:



On Boston in Post-9/11 context:

Stay the Hand of Vengeance: From Guantánamo to Boston, why Americans have a dangerous tendency to overreact to terrorism at Foreign Policy







Bronx idiots beat up Bangladeshi man hours after Boston bombing for looking like an ‘Arab’  (via @willbrooker)






(via @mikemonello

(via @mikemonello, though, as @kouredios pointed out, the state of Massachusetts has background checks regardless of any federal shenanigans)






And for the other event that left me disappointed in humanity this week, on the defeat of background check legislation in the Senate:

For the Love of God, Just Call It a Filibuster at The Atlantic

Curbing Filibuster Abuse policy paper from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.


Next week, regular blog post, promise.

On Friday, April 5, a couple of my tweeps passed along links to the TorrentFreak story Movie Studios Want Google to Take Down Their Own Takedown Request








Now, there’s a fair chance that these requests “are just another byproduct of the automated tools that are used to find infringing URLs” (TorrentFreak)—i.e., that the crawler found the URL to a copyrighted thing in the letter (which it has to be to tell Google what to take down), so it gets added to the list of takedown requests.

There’s also a possibility that the motivation has something to do with the fact that “with more than 100 million links to pirated files Google is steadily building the largest database of copyrighted material. This is rather ironic as it would only take one skilled coder to index the URLs from the DMCA notices in order to create one of the largest pirate search engines available” (TorrentFreak).

But having just read the report “Will Fair Use Survive?: Free Expression in the Age of Copyright Control” (pdf) from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, I see another implication, whether or not it was the intent—the system of intellectual property strongarming currently in place works best when the people being strongarmed are isolated and invisible rather than there being traces like archived takedown letters.

In the Brennan Center report, their analysis of all the letters archived by the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse for 2004 found that “more than 20% either stated weak copyright or trademark claims, or involved speech with a fair or at least reasonable free expression or fair use defense. Another 27% attacked material with possible free expression or fair use defenses” (p. ii).

Despite these weak claims or reasonable cases for legitimate use, the report found that many of the things targeted were taken down, even among a population they described as “likely to be a more knowledgeable group than the average” about their free speech and fair use rights given that they knew about Chilling Effects in the first place (p. 36).

The Brennan Center found that part of the capitulation was that the costs of fighting such takedown requests were often prohibitive—both monetary costs for lawyers and potential damages if the person who pushed back lost, and “fear, intimidation, and the emotional cost of defying an IP owner” (p. 37). And I think this speaks to the feeling of being a single individual against amassed industry legal and financial might, and I think that’s a pretty powerful force that should be taken seriously.

It was a victory for transparency (if not quite resistance to copyright maximalism) when “Google decided to forward the take-down notices to Chilling Effects while removing the listings from its index in accordance with the DMCA, and, in their place, inserting a link to the notice on the Chilling Effects site” (Brennan Center p. 29). That is, they did what they had to in accordance with the law, but they didn’t do it silently as if the alleged infringing object had never been.

TorrentFreak opines that “apparently Google has white-listed the Chillingeffects domain because it doesn’t see these indirect links as infringing,” but also notes that “Google is no stranger to removing non-direct links to links.”

This suggests that this is not a simple automated process declaring these links “indirect and noninfringing” to keep up with the 20 million takedown notices Google gets in a month (according to TorrentFreak). Instead, I think that the inclination toward transparency that led them to send things to Chilling Effects in the first place has something to do with holding the line on keeping those letters available.

These processes of shutting down speech—which the Brennan Center report found were sometimes aimed at suppressing criticism—need to happen out in the open. We should know what capital is using copyright as a blunt instrument to stifle. And they should probably have to explain in more detail why, given that such requests are spurious a nontrivial part of the time.

Right now, in Henry Jenkins’s phrase, “someone who stands to lose their home or their kid’s college fund by going head-to-head with studio attorneys is apt to fold” (Convergence Culture, p. 138) regardless of who’s in the right, and the Brennan Center report proposes that “providing for damages and attorneys’ fees where owners have made material misrepresentations in their take-down letters can help redress the imbalance” (p. 55). The Brennan Center also suggests that the legal profession “investigate the possibility of sanctions against lawyers who send frivolous cease and desist letters” (p. 57).

I think these would be excellent steps toward moving away from the use of intellectual property law as a weapon of the strong against the weak. But while we’re waiting, the traces of takedowns in the form of archived letters at Chilling Effects is the very least we can do.

I received an email on March 29 from the University of Illinois Gradlinks service announcing “MOOC Monday is almost here,” which feels like it should have an exclamation point but doesn’t.

This strikes me as a bizarre thing to have as the kickoff event for “Grad Student Appreciation Week.” Grad students don’t teach MOOCs, not least since much of the selling point is having free (unfettered and unpaid) access to famous professors. Moreover, my understanding is that the “massive” and “open” parts mean there aren’t really grades and so grad students don’t TA for MOOCs either. And graduate students definitely don’t take MOOCs as students, since graduate education is not suitable for the format (I’ll come back to suitability later).

The email’s own explanation is that “with more and more online courses, future faculty will want to be well versed in the ins and outs of online teaching.” This collapse of all online teaching into MOOCs sounds a bit like a memorable post  from Academic Men Explain Things to Me, retweeted to me by I can’t remember who, in which “an older gentleman” mansplained to the poster that “although he had never taught nor taken an online class, he was quite sure that I was wrong…all online classes were MOOC.”

There is a chance that the title was chosen for alliteration (the others are Tax Tuesday, Work Wednesday, Thirsty Thursday, Fitness Friday, Skating Saturday), but the ways in which MOOC stood out to someone as a good idea because it’s a sexy buzzword should not be discounted.

And now for the part of the blog where I argue that seemingly disparate things are related and indicative of a broader phenomenon (I figure I should embrace being predictable). This arrived in the week after Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma introduced an amendment to a funding bill that would “prohibit the NSF [National Science Foundation] from funding political science research unless a project is certified as ‘promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States’” (Huffington Post).

Now, I’m agnostic on whether part of the motivation for Coburn’s amendment (and his apparent overall hatred for political science) is a desire to defund research that is potentially lefty and exposing of his party’s machinations. It’s an appealing theory, but I don’t have any basis to assess it. What I think is much more likely (and maybe the two operate in conjunction) is a fiscal conservative outrage at federal funding for research that seems not to benefit the nation.

And given that hunch about fiscal priorities, I think the MOOC-ification of education and the Coburn amendment (though later defeated) both speak to the same set of beliefs about what knowledge is valuable to teach or to discover, respectively.

This is a logic that values only knowledge that is tangible, immediately apparent as useful, and/or applied, at the expense of other sorts: knowledge for its own sake, knowledge that will be applied one day but whose applications are not yet apparent, and the thing I tend to teach my students—in the phrase of a University of Illinois INTERSECT project—“learning to see systems.”

Online courses in general, and massive, open ones in particular, seem to me to lend themselves only to the first sort of knowledge. They’re suitable, as I usually put it, to things that “have a right answer”: introductory math and science, history when the goal is to learn facts, skills-based learning like business or accounting or advertising.

I don’t think those kinds of subjects are unworthy of study (though, as often happens, this division is hierarchical and those practitioners may not extend me the same courtesy). I also don’t think online teaching is inherently bad. Certainly, the Chronicle of Higher Education piece on online courses I read a while back had suggestions for a successful class that aren’t so different than in person teaching: “Respond to all student queries within 24 hours”? I do that; “End with a post that sums up the conversation”? Not really different than summing up a class discussion; “constantly be on the prowl for YouTube clips, articles and essays, photos, and even online crossword puzzles that highlight and reinforce themes in your course”? Yep.

But the online course cannot substitute for the work of trying out frameworks of thought and asking “what if?” nor for laboratory or problem-solving activities, and this is the stuff of advanced technical subjects, studying society (contemporary or historical) as a structure, and philosophy/theory.

As Suzanne Scott noted in her comparison of SCMS as a “massively open online conference” to MOO-courses, “they can never fully replicate the social experience of a class, or the social dynamics of a class cohort” either. Of course, this kind of work is devalued in the “useful knowledge” paradigm that says anything that doesn’t teach students “skills” is a waste of tuition and tax dollars.

But it’s this definition of what constitutes a “benefit” to society or to an individual that I want to question. In terms of research, lots of things had unexpected benefits that weren’t planned when the research was done. Penicillin was discovered by accident (which is common enough knowledge to be a Google autocomplete option), etc. Shutting down legitimate, fundable research to only that which already has apparent uses prevents us from ever making those kinds of discoveries again.

Similarly, if we think of “benefit” in terms of teaching, I never learned any job skills in my undergraduate education, but my high-quality liberal arts education made me great at the “real” job that I had before coming back to academia. Because I knew to not take things at face value, but look at the bigger picture, I could ask whether there were better ways to do the work I was assigned. I streamlined processes and my efficiency was greatly appreciated by our clients, but it’s not anything I was taught in school directly so much as the outcome of learning to ask “why?” or “why not?” and “what if?”

It’s tempting, as with the suspicion of Coburn’s motives, to see this as some sort of class-demarcating move—the rank and file learn skills and not how to question (or rather, they don’t learn that they should question), so they will be docile underlings. The problem is that if this becomes the model, those managers will just learn “management” skills, and not broad thinking either. Moreover, after watching my supervisor at that office job struggle with the fact that the person who replaced me had no ability to problem-solve, having this sort of employee actually makes more work for management.

Ultimately, the MOOC-ification of education and the Coburn Amendment are both salvos in the battle over the meaning of education. And, while I will definitely argue that knowledge is worth learning—and worth paying for—even if it never has a practical application, I don’t even need to make that argument. Because the “squishy,” nebulous, allegedly useless topics without right answers are the key to personal and business success.

Now, if only we could get the powers that be to recognize it.

There has been a ton of writing about all the wildly awful things about the Steubenville sexual assault case: the slut-shaming and victim-blaming; marksdubbsthe focus on the boys’ “ruined lives” at the expense of any mention of the impact on the person who experienced the assault; CNNCNN’s bizarre coverage (which prompted petitions to land in my inbox from three separate progressive organizations); and all the awful things that got said on social media (brought to my attention by @AmandaAnnKlein). Also, there was a truly odd use of the word “alleged”–its purpose is for the perpetrator, to preserve “innocent until proven guilty,” not for the victim, to imply nothing ever happened, mmkay?

All of those things have been critiqued, I think, extraordinarily well, and I don’t think I can improve on that.

What I want to talk about is the ways this may be a turning point for electronically networked youth culture.

This is not to suggest, as some journalists have, that somehow the events are a product of electronic networks, as with Susanna Schrobsdorff’s statement in Time: “Joking about rape, referencing sexual acts and girls making fun of girls perceived as ‘sluts’ is just part of teen online culture now.”

This is not part of teen online culture. It’s part of teen culture, full stop. And it’s not “now”; as someone who presumably went to high school more recently than Schrobsdorff, I can vouch that saying these kinds of awful things is not new. What’s new is the visibility, the leaving of traces.

I’m a scholar of gender and sexuality and media; lots of people in my circle account themselves feminists. And as a result, an interesting juxtaposition occurred on my Twitter feed during the week of March 18: Veronica Mars and Steubenville. (I was late on Veronica Mars because of SCMS, and now I’m late on Steubenville because Veronica Mars broke first. A day may come when a news event will coincide with my blog production cycle, but it is not this day.)

But watching the last couple episodes of Season 1 of Veronica Mars the other weekend (in which, spoiler alert, Veronica finally pieces together what happened the night she was drugged and raped) in conjunction with the verdict in the Steubenville case coming down, there were both such similarities between the fictional case and the real one and such crucial differences that it got me thinking.

In VM, as in Steubenville, lots of people witnessed sexual things happening to a drugged girl who everyone assumed was drunk and slutty.  All of those witnesses (with the exception of the ex-boyfriend in the VM case), did not act to stop the events from occurring, which makes them morally responsible even if legal codes often don’t have a way to make such bystanders criminally responsible. (Though, you know, bystander effect is a real thing that happens.)

When Veronica could not remember what happened, and knew only that something had, it took her a year of piecing together disparate sources to figure it out. In Steubenville, electronically networked youth culture recorded everything, and though the local authorities were not inclined to intervene until prodded by national outrage and Anonymous, those (prosecutable) traces made the difference. As Richard Oppel wrote in the New York Times, “because the victim did not remember what had happened, scores of text messages and cellphone pictures provided much of the evidence” in the trial.

The fictional bystanding and the subsequent harassment of Veronica as slutty took place in meatspace, was ephemeral, left no traces. The parallel with the real-life crime is that “the trial also exposed the behavior of other teenagers, who wasted no time spreading photos and text messages with what many in the community felt was callousness or cruelty” (Oppel).

At SCMS a few weeks ago, I attended a paper on bullying in Nickelodeon TV show iCarly, given by my colleague Martina Baldwin. One thing that came up in the Q&A after the session was that, while there’s a long tradition of young people being awful to each other, the difference is in the traces. Things that used to be said in hallways and heard by only a few people now last longer because they are written down; by comparison to the nasty note written on paper, the text message or Facebook posting is exponentially more transmissible and harder to destroy. (Of course, this is the paradox of the Internet: things you want to get rid of last forever; things you want to preserve disappear.)

Indeed, the moral panic around “cyberbullying,” while technologically deterministic in suggesting that such things never occurred before the Internet, may not be totally off base. First, there’s the increased nastiness that comes with not bullying someone in person (this is not just true of youth; see the comments on any news story with a controversial topic, many if not most of which are written by adults). Second, there’s the intensification that comes with the seeming permanence and “everybody knows” aspect of these modes of harassment.

But now, the people who did not assault the girl physically but did do so emotionally and socially may also face consequences. The Ohio attorney general has announced that he “might consider offenses thatsteubenville1 include obstruction of justice, failure to report a felony and failure to report child abuse” (Oppel). This is an interesting turn of events, and not for the reason suggested by what the judge apparently said:

(Which sounds a bit like “you would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids.”) While it may indeed serve as a lesson to kids to keep their torture of each other more private, it also has another potential:steubenville2

Youth culture is, more or less, what it has been—if not always, at least as long as I’ve been aware of it. It was already highly networked and skilled at the transmission of information, particularly in ways that harass and harm others.

But the fact that the youth network is now electronic made all the difference in securing justice for that girl in Steubenville. Even more broadly, the use of electronic media traces as evidence in prosecution raises the possibility that the unique ways that these technologies intensify the awfulness of teen culture may begin to recede. In this way, despite all the ridiculousness that has surrounded it (see again the first section of this blog), the verdict is an incredible step forward.