If you want to make fun of Mickey or Barbie on your Web site, you may be hearing from some corporate lawyers. You should also think twice about calling something “”fair and balanced”” or publicly using Martin Luther King Jr.’s “”I Have a Dream”” speech. It may be illegal. Or it may be entirely legal, but the distinction doesn’t matter if you can’t afford a lawyer. More and more, corporations are grabbing and asserting rights over every idea and creation in our world, regardless of the law’s intent or the public interest. But beyond the humorous absurdity of all this, there lies a darker problem, as David Bollier shows in this important new book. Lawsuits and legal bullying clearly prevent the creation of legitimate new software, new art and music, new literature, new businesses, and worst of all, new scientific and medical research.
David Bollier (Amherst, MA) is cofounder of Public Knowledge and Senior Fellow at the Norman Lear Center, USC Annenberg School for Communication. His books include Silent Theft.
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