Culture vs. Copyright: A Diary of a Naive Philosopher, Book Review

By Anatoly Volynets

This was the mark of the Stationer’s Company,
which had a monopoly on printing rights in England from
1557 to 1710.  The image is in the public domain.

Innovators often have a hard time convincing people to change the way things “have always been done”. History offers startling examples of how tightly people hold onto entrenched views. In the 1950’s, for example, early models of the kidney dialysis machine were considered “abominations” by some doctors at Mt. Sinai Hospital. And in the nineteenth century, Ignaz Semmelweiss was derided by medical colleagues for suggesting doctors should wash their hands before assisting at childbirth. So prepare yourself to resist the notions of Anatoly Volynets when you read his book, Culture vs. Copyright. In the book, Mr. Volynets suggests that artists, and the public, would benefit if copyright laws were eliminated.

Many readers may feel this discussion has little to do with them. They’re probably wrong. Just about anyone who engages in commerce or communication is affected by copyright laws. Posting a picture on Facebook may easily violate those laws, if the picture is lifted from a copyright-protected source on the Internet. Quoting extensively from a book or article also may be a violation. Of course, professional artists–authors, musicians, photographers, for example–are acutely aware of the protection and limitation that copyright law places on their actions. Most of these professionals cannot imagine operating in a system where copyright does not exist. They imagine that absent copyright protection, they will lose income from the product of their unique talents. Mr. Volynets labors to convince them–and us–that the reverse is true.

In service of his argument, Mr. Volynets traces the history of modern copyright laws. He points to a time in France (Jacobin era) and England (before 1710) when these laws did not exist and explains that their application was designed to benefit businesses and governments, not individuals. It is Mr. Volynets contention that this is still the case. He explains in detail how eliminating copyright laws would give artists greater freedom (in his opinion) to market their wares in a competitive environment. He also explains his belief that without copyright laws, competition between business would increase and this would potentially increase profits.

Mr. Volynets puts forth an interesting argument. Whether or not the reader is persuaded is almost beside the point. The aspect of this book that is most important is that it requires readers to examine an accepted custom. It asks readers to throw out established notions about the necessity of copyright laws.

Copyright laws are not written in stone. They are constantly amended. If the public does not understand who is served by the law and by the amendments, then the public cannot meaningfully participate in the discussion about these very important regulations. And if the public doesn’t participate, then the regulations will be written by powerful, vested interests. That, in my opinion, is never a good thing.
Although this book serves a worthy goal and may elicit a response from readers, it is not perfect. A device Mr. Volynets employs, for much of the book, is an imagined dialogue between first graders and a teacher. My patience was tested by these exercises. At one point I simply stopped reading the dialogues and only considered sections that had straight exposition. It is possible I lost some of the book’s significance by taking this route, but I was willing to give that up.

One of my standards for recommending a book of nonfiction is whether or not I came away with insight or information I did not have prior to reading. That is the case here. In addition to discussing the development of intellectual rights legislation in France and England, the book also addresses the origin of this class of regulation in the United States. Volynets explains that the framers of the United States Constitution looked to Europe for a model when they provided (in Article I, Section 8) for protection of intellectual property rights.

Mr. Volynets’ writing style is clear and not overly pedantic, considering the subject under consideration. I do recommend Anatoly Volynets’ Culture vs. Copyright.

A. G. Moore  3/2017

Approaching the Common Core from an Uncommon Perspective

TheNationsReportCard small letters

By A. G. Moore

A Fractious Public Rejects the Common Core
The Common Core has become a lightning rod in communities across the U.S. New York Newsday, for example, recently ran an article describing a “Tsunami of test refusals” that targeted the Common Core. Despite such popular protests, a strong belief in the need for education reform continues to drive government commitment to the Common Core curriculum. Into the fray this past week came a contrary voice that supported neither Common Core nor its opponents.

Euardo Porter, writing for the New York Times, suggested that educational reform may not be the way to raise lagging U.S. student achievement scores. Rather, Porter suggested, improvements may come only if a broad range of social issues is addressed. Porter cited the results of a study by the EPI (Economic Policy Institute) which indicates that instead of comparing national achievement levels, student performance should be broken down into social classes. The data from these subsets yields an interesting result.

Seal of the Village_of_Scarsale 2

A Sounder Basis for Comparison
When students from different countries but similar economic backgrounds are compared, U. S. student achievement doesn’t look bad. It turns out that students with similar advantages (or disadvantages) demonstrate education achievement at similar levels. Economic and social class, more than nationality, correlate to academic achievement.

Though this news may be welcome by educators who have had the scolding finger of reformers pointed at them, it may not be so welcome by many others. If the EPI study is correct, it means that in order to improve academic achievement nationally, we need to address economic inequality in the U.S.

While some people will balk at this suggestion, there are aspects of the argument that are undeniable:
1) Overall academic achievement of U.S. students lags in international comparisons; 2) A dramatic academic deficit is not in the nation’s interest; 3) In order to be a global leader in the future, the U.S. will have to produce citizens who can compete with peers internationally.

redone Students_who_scored_600_or_more_on_the_math_SAT
The National Science Foundation; public domain

U.S. Education, By the Numbers
Evidence of the U.S. academic deficit can be found in a number of surveys. A 2012 report from PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), for example, showed U.S. students ranking 36th in a group of 65 participating countries. In another survey of academic achievement, the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (the ‘Nation’s Report Card’), there were signs that recent educational reform had not significantly changed student performance. As a matter of fact, students in some grades actually scored more poorly in 2015 than they did in 2013.

Something is obviously wrong with U.S. education. Whatever is at the root of the problem, we don’t seem to be able to fix it. Porter’s article offers interesting insight into the problem. This insight becomes more interesting if two sets of seemingly unrelated data are compared: one is a measure of economic equality and the other a measure of academic performance.

surplus foods 2
Photo: FDR Presidential Library; public domain
The U.S. Surplus Food Program began under
FDR and continues today as the Emergency
Food Assistance Program

The GINI, Where Scoring High Is Not a Good Thing
The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), of which the U.S. is a member state, has developed a way to quantify economic equality/inequality. Called the GINI index, this number gives members an idea of how they fare, relative to other member states, in delivering economic equality to their citizens. A high number means less equality. In 2015 the OECD released its survey. Of 34 members, the U.S. ranked 31. Only Turkey, Mexico and Chile had worse (higher) scores.

Compare the U.S. GINI (economic equality) rating to the U.S. PISA (education) rating: 31 to 34. It may strike some as remarkable that the U.S. ranking in economic equality and the U.S. ranking in education achievement are virtually at the same level.

Going Forward Toward a Solution
Do these numbers prove anything? Perhaps not, but community furor over the Common Core isn’t dying down. Nor is the government’s ambition to increase achievement levels of U.S. students. What if community and government are focused on the wrong issue? What if neither the Common Core, nor any other curriculum change will substantially improve the global standing of U.S students? The question deserves a full and honest appraisal.