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L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 654, January 22, 2012

"Violence Solves a Lot"


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Online Censorship: Uncensored
by Jonathan David Morris
jdm@readjdm.com

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Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

Yesterday morning I posted a column called "An Article in Protest of Internet Censorship." It took about three seconds for the average reader to realize the article was blank, and about seven more seconds of scrolling up and down on the page to realize they weren't imagining it. The blankness of this column, of course, was no accident. It was the point. That was my protest.

I owe my life to the Internet. Well, maybe that's dramatic. But inasmuch as writing is the number one thing I like to do in life, the Internet, as much as anything else, is responsible for the fact that I'm able to do it. I've been writing online in various forms since 1996. That's sixteen years. I'm 33-years-old. I've been writing online half my life. I've been fortunate enough to see my stuff published on sites as far from home as Russia and Germany. I've spoken with people all over the world, on every single continent, except Antarctica.

People who've been following me long enough know that one of the first forms of writing I did was on boxing. Back in the day, that was the main thing I wrote about—not the political stuff that I eventually became known for, and not the fiction I would rather be known for. In the mid-to-late '90s, when chatrooms were big (remember chatrooms?), I spent a good amount of time in the ESPN.com boxing chatroom talking about my favorite sport. (This sounds pathetic, but you have to remember, in the mid-90s, before the MMA explosion, fellow boxing fans were hard to find in real life.) We formed a little community in that chatroom, and I, being the entrepreneurial spirit that I was, chose to design a website where regulars of those chats could post their articles on boxing. At the time, it seemed fitting to include an ESPN logo at the top of that website.

Boxing being the relatively small deal that it was, ESPN never found us, and their logo was eventually replaced by one that was made specifically for the site. But had they found us, even back then, we—and especially me—could have been in a boatload of trouble. It was right around that time that corporate media entities began sending out their lawyers to shut down unofficial fan sites on the grounds of copyright infringement (use of logos, fan fiction, things like that). At the outset, this probably sounds reasonable to people. If a company owns a brand, they're within their rights to want to control it. Well, maybe in a legal sense they are, but it's contrary to the processes of human culture, and it's also counterproductive.

Human beings have always shared stories. Human language itself, at least in part, is an outgrowth of this desire. Long before people wrote things down, tales were passed from person to person, generation to generation, and ultimately culture to culture. The story of Noah's flood, for example, is not unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition; at least 200 cultures around the world, and possibly as many as 500 cultures, share or have shared a similar legend (some with amazingly similar details). Robin Hood, King Arthur, the stories of Homer—the list goes on of great human stories transcending the ages and their original storytellers because the audience made them their own.

Today, many stories, and brands for that matter, are created or distributed through large, corporate entities. That may sound soulless, and sometimes it is, but that in no way stems the deep human impulse to deconstruct art, derive meaning from it, and apply it to your life. When we discuss Internet censorship, we need to discuss this. We need to discuss the realities of human culture, because those realities are at odds with the corporate behemoths who seek to create and control that culture. They don't want us creating online shrines to our favorite shows, movies, songs, whatever. They don't want us writing fan fiction, if we feel so inclined, and they certainly don't want us using copyrighted media as we create media of our own on sites like YouTube. What they want, in no uncertain terms, is to control what they've created, because they believe—make that wrongly believe—that this is the best way to make money from it. At the end of the day, they are not concerned with art. They are concerned with the commodity of art. They are concerned with money.

As an artist myself (and I use that term loosely, but for the sake of discussion, I think it's fitting), I am wholly unconcerned with the prospect of people appropriating my work for their own purposes, because that only helps me. Piracy is a problem; don't get me wrong. If I'm selling something, I'd obviously rather see people pay for it than steal it. But I also know that the best way to make money from what I'm doing is to let people take ownership of it.

A few years ago, for instance, someone I never met, and never spoke to, created a website literally for the purposes of commenting on my articles. This was all the site was. Just a weekly commentary on my weekly commentaries, because he so enjoyed reading them. I don't know whatever happened to that guy, but just imagine what would have happened if I had sent him a letter telling him to shut the site down. First of all, I would have lost a fan. Second of all, I may have lost many fans, because who knows how many people found my site by first finding his? Finally, who knows what that guy was capable of? Maybe he was going to be the greatest writer who ever lived, and I was just his starting point. If Marvel Comics were to go around suing any fifth grader who traces a drawing of Spider-Man (not something that's ever happened, to my knowledge), they could easily deprive themselves of one of the world's next great comic book artists.

There's an impulse to say that art and money cannot mix. I don't believe that's true. I believe art can be created for art's sake, while still having an eye on making a profit from it. Like with anything in life, you need to find the balance. And that means not supporting any legislation which further entrenches us in a corporate-owned culture at the expense of a user-shared one. This may not be the focus of SOPA and PIPA, the legislation which inspired yesterday's Wikipedia blackout, as well as this article. But it's all a part of the larger struggle for freedom within our culture— especially the online part of it.

The neat thing about the Internet is that it's allowed guys like me, writers like me, to make a name for themselves in a corporate-controlled world where breaking in, even when you have talent, even when you have something interesting to say, is difficult. The Internet has given me the opportunity to promote myself and my writing in ways that I might have otherwise struggled to do, because the news and publishing industries were too busy creating a professional wrestling-like atmosphere in politics and promoting Snooki as a New York Times best-selling author. I may not owe my life to the Internet, but I owe at least a portion—a large portion—of my career to it. If not for the relative freedom of the online environment, my whole writing career could easily be as blank as yesterday's article.


Jonathan David Morris is the author of the novella, VERSUS NURTURE, available this February on Kindle, Nook, and other eformats.

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