Copyright and "intellectual disobedience"

Artist Nina Paley on pushing the boundaries of copyright.

I ran across the phrase “intellectual disobedience” while putting together questions for an interview with artist Nina Paley (@ninapaley). Paley is active in the free culture space, so I figured the “intellectual” portion of that term must be related to “intellectual property.” During our chat at Foo Camp 2012, I learned there’s much more to it.

“Intellectual disobedience is civil disobedience plus intellectual property,” Paley explained. “A lot of people infringe copyright and they’re apologetic … If you know as much about the law as, unfortunately, I do, I cannot claim ignorance and I cannot claim fair use … I know that I’m infringing copyright and I don’t apologize for it.”

The phrase “intellectual disobedience” has a call-to-arms ring to it, but Paley characterized it as an introspective personal choice driven by a need to create. “It’s important for me as an artist to make art, and the degree of self-censorship that is required by the law is too great,” Paley said. “In order to have integrity as a human being and as an artist, I guess I’m going to be conscientiously violating the law because there’s no way to comply with the law and remain a free human being.”

It struck me that Paley’s stance plugs into a long-view sense of copyright inevitability — eventually, the momentum of real-world content use will overrun the blockades of entrenched content industries (this is already in progress). What’s interesting is that while Paley sees great hope in content culture, she doesn’t believe copyright laws will change anytime soon:

“I’m not hopeful for the laws changing. A lot of other people are, so maybe we’ll have meaningful copyright reform. I doubt it, and I don’t think it matters. I think the tools are available for people to create and share culture, and they’re going to do that. They might be doing it illegally, and at a certain point, it’s going to be more than the system can handle. I will say that if the power structure as it exists wants to continue, they’re going to have to reform. It’s not sustainable. Copyright law, as it is, is just completely out of touch with human behavior.”

I also asked Paley about the people and projects she’s following these days:

You can see the full interview in the following video.


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  • I don’t think stealing from the work of others is an act of preserving one’s rights as a “free human being.”

  • Almost Anonymous

    Guy Manningham: The fact that you don’t know the definition of the word “stealing” renders your opinion null and void to me.

  • Peter

    So breaking the law is OK if it is art, or just if you disagree with it. Surely that way lies a total breakdown of society.

    I would think that the point of preserving intellectual property through copyright is so that artists can actually make a living out of their creations.

  • Chesh

    “Surely that way lies a total breakdown of society.”

    Sure Peter, civil disobedience has destroyed society already. Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Negativland, they’re all basically terrorists, amirite?

  • I disagree. Copyright is important for the other comment listed above. People need to make a living. I do music videos and the bands need to make money to live they can’t just have everyone stealing their work or they won’t be able to continue making music.

  • Bruce

    I think all of this noise needs to be context driven
    No one can/should argue that an artist (say The Beatles) has inherent copyright privledges in their creations, right? But what if The Beatles somehow managed to copyright any song made with an Electric Guitar? I believe all this is about Good vs Bad copyright laws not Every copyright law. Indeed what is Good or Bad is in the eye of the beholder.

    Having said that I wish, this interview had gone into more depth on that good vs bad discussion as to what Nina’s specific views were. Maybe she has a reasonable outlook; or maybe she is a looney-tunes?

  • ehjxgcth

    Her attitude does sound kind of selfish to me. If she doesn’t want to copyright her stuff, she doesn’t have to. She can put it all in the public domain, an act that’s so common it can’t even be called disobedience. If her idea is so good, her cup will overflow with the goodness she generates and the rest of us stuck in the copyright game will see how stupid our game may be.

    But she wants to destroy the copyright system for the rest of us too. That’s selfish.