Monday, October 30, 2006

Free culture badge

Courtesy of Sivacracy, here's the Free Culture movement's response to the "Respect Copyright" merit badges now being issued to upstanding Boy Scouts living in and around the Los Angeles area. (Take a look at my post below for more information about the BSA's intellectual property-related initiative.) I gather that "copyleft" is the gist of the patch, which only exists in mock-up.

Now, let's just hope some cheeky clothing designer doesn't decide to adopt "copyleft" as the name of her or his label....

Thursday, October 26, 2006

This has to be a joke

I was on my way to the gym this morning, when I heard a story on NPR (this is sounding so bourgeois already) about the latest merit badge that Boy Scouts living in the Los Angeles area now reportedly can earn. It's an "anti-piracy" badge, an image of which appears at left. Evidently the movie industry is behind the whole thing, and to earn the badge Scouts need to learn some basic information about copyright law and "piracy." You can hear the full story from NPR by clicking here.

My first reaction to this story was, "this must be a Kembrew McLeod media hoax." My second reaction was, "didn't the recording industry sue the Girl Scouts of America not that long ago for singing copyrighted campfire songs?" And my last response was, "where do I get one of those badges?"

Any confirmation of the story's validty would be appreciated, as would a Boy Scout anti-piracy badge. You can send it to me at my office.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The costs of doing business

Jonathan Sterne's Superbon! has been a wellspring of inspiration lately. His latest post, a provocative meditation on the academic compulsion to perform upper-middle classness, certainly is worth checking out. For my part, I left a comment relating some of my own difficulties in negotiating the transition from graduate student to aspiring-to-be-middle-class professor. The first few months post-Ph.D. were especially trying.

I also made an offhanded comment on Superbon! about the astonishing amount of money it takes to finish graduate school, which is something few people ever seem to talk about. That got me thinking about what I had to pay simply to receive my Ph.D., above and beyond years of paying tuition, fees, and related expenses:

  • $74 dissertation binding and microfilming fee

  • $45 copyright registration fee

  • $350 (approx.) for dissertation copying on 24#, 100% cotton paper

  • This list, of course, doesn't include "incidentals" such as regalia. At my alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill, graduating Ph.D.s can rent regalia for $46 or purchase a "keepsake" cap and gown for $66. (Whatever you do, make sure to keep these acetate wonders away from open flames!) Custom regalia, which many faculty are expected to wear to formal academic ceremonies, will set you back anywhere from $500 to a grand. Some institutions even charge "graduation fees," though thankfully UNC did not.

    Grand total: anywhere from about $500 to $1500 just to get out the door.

    These pricey, though perhaps innocuous-sounding, fees don't tell you much about the strange ways in which they force graduating Ph.D. students to shoulder costs that really ought to be picked up by the university, since they benefit the latter much more than they do the former. Take the $74 "dissertation binding and microfilming fee," for instance. Essentially the graduate is paying the institution to keep copies of her/his dissertation in its library. What if I'd rather save the $74 by opting out? No can do. Part of that $74 goes to UMI, moreover, a company that microfilms and electronically indexes dissertations. The company's doing so might benefit me indirectly, because it essentially makes my dissertation accessible to a broad, international audience. Still, there's irony at work here: why do I have to pay money out of pocket so that UMI can profit from my labor? That's hard to get my head around. Then, of course, there's the 24#, 100% cotton paper, which is astonishingly expensive compared to regular weight, wood pulp-based paper. As with the other fees, the graduate student once again has to endure a cost that really has little to do with him or her. In this case, it results from the university's compulsion to store whatever it can on archival quality paper.

    This list, of course, doesn't account for dissertation copies that finishing graduate students might want to keep for themselves or share with friends, family, loved ones, colleagues, or committee members--and don't even get me started about the costs of custom binding those copies. I'm sure there are many, many more expenses that I'm missing here. The point is, it takes a remarkable amount of money to become a middle-class academic. And I suspect the lack of public conversation on the topic has a lot to do with the strong sense of resignation many people feel as they near completion of a Ph.D. By the time you slog through years of course work, exams, dissertation writing, and defenses, you're so tired that you'll do just about anything to be done with graduate school. At least, that's how I felt--and that's certainly why I didn't make a stink about the price tag until now.

    Monday, October 16, 2006


    I have a special category to which only some, particularly special, books in my library belong. It's called, "books whose significance I intuit but cannot yet comprehend." Daniel Heller-Roazen's remarkable Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language (Zone Books, 2005), which I just finished reading, is my latest addition to the category.

    Echolalias is challenging to describe--a bit of a paradox, really. It's among the most erudite books I've encountered, but at the same time, it's also surprisingly readable. Its accessibility stems, I think, from Heller-Roazen's gift at telling poignant stories about language, all of which revolve around the central theme of forgetting. His range is astonishing. Most of the stories he recounts and subsequently develops were rendered originally in Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Latin, French, German, and other non-English languages. (The book itself is in English, a few untranslated passages notwithstanding.) The result is what can only be described as among the most subtle and culturally plural intellectual-historical meditations on the philosophy of language that I can recall.

    I'm taken above all by both the idea and phenomenon of an echolalia, which refers to a kind of "babble," stuttering, or blurting out that's prior to language. (The term has particular uptake in relation to individuals with Tourette's Syndrome, many of whom have great difficulty controlling language.) It's precisely this kind of activity, argues Heller-Roazen, that we must forget for language to form, and yet echolalias persist despite language. Think, for example, of all the "uhs," "ums," and other nonsense words that permeate speech that aren't categorically language.

    Having read Echolalias, I'm beginning to think of language/speech through the image of walking, which I gather from kinesiologists is basically a controlled fall. Perhaps language is, after all, something of a controlled echolalia, or a strategic reining in of our capacity to produce resonant sound. And like walking, its purpose is to move us forward.

    The closest work to which I can compare Echolalias is John Durham Peters' Speaking Into the Air, which similarly investigates the nature of communication by exploring its absolute limits. And whether you liked, loathed, or haven't read Peters' book (it's a masterpiece in my estimation), make sure to pick up Echolalias. You won't be disappointed--though perhaps, like me, you'll take some time to figure out just what's so significant about this elegant book.

    Monday, October 02, 2006

    B-I-G news!


    Ted Striphas and Kembrew McLeod announce the release of the complete contents of Cultural Studies 20(2/3) (March/May 2006), a special issue on "The Politics of Intellectual Properties." By special agreement with the publisher, Taylor & Francis, the issue can be downloaded free of charge from and

    About the issue: This special issue of Cultural Studies aims to create a genuinely interdisciplinary scholarly discussion of the politics of intellectual properties. While many areas of study pay lip service to the idea of interdisciplinary work, one remarkable thing about recent intellectual property research is the way it has produced an actual cross-pollination of scholarship. Drawing together prominent scholars from multiple disciplines, this issue of Cultural Studies speaks to many significant topical intersections--from library science, computer science, and the biological sciences to popular music, film studies, and media studies, to name a few. In addition to presenting compelling, cutting-edge research, this issue explores what cultural studies can contribute to public conversations about the politics of intellectual properties.

    Issue Table of Contents:
    (1) Ted Striphas & Kembrew McLeod, “Introduction—Strategic Improprieties: Cultural Studies, the Everyday, and the Politics of Intellectual Properties”
    (2) Adrian Johns, “Intellectual Property and the Nature of Science”
    (3) McKenzie Wark, “Information Wants to be Free (But is Everywhere in Chains)”
    (4) Andrew Herman, Rosemary J. Coombe, & Lewis Kaye, “Your Second Life? Goodwill and the Performativity of Intellectual Properties in On-Line Games”
    (5) Steve Jones, “Reality© and Virtual Reality©: When Virtual and Real Worlds Collide”
    (6) Jane Gaines, “Early Cinema, Heyday of Copying: The Too Many Copies of L’arroseur arose”
    (7) Gilbert B. Rodman & Cheyanne Vanderdonckt, “Music for Nothing or, I Want My MP3: The Regulation and Recirculation of Affect”
    (8) David Sanjek, “Ridiculing the 'White Bread Original': The Politics of Parody and Preservation of Greatness in Luther Campbell a.k.a. Luke Skyywalker et al. v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc.”
    (9) Eva Hemmungs Wirtén, “Out of Sight and Out of Mind: On the Cultural Hegemony of Intellectual Property (Critique)”
    (10) Siva Vaidhyanathan, “Afterword—Critical Information Studies: A Bibliographic Manifesto”
    (11) Patricia R. Zimmermann, “Just Say No: Negativland's No Business”

    Academic publishing and DRM

    Courtesy of Jonathan Sterne's Superbon! a very compelling (and depressing) meditation on academic book publishing and the increasing presence/disturbance of digital rights management (DRM) schemes. Here's an excerpt:
    I opened up my email this morning to discover a letter from Sage, to which I link at the end of this post. The gist of it is that my author’s offprints now come as an executable file. I can print forever, off this computer. I can email the file to 25 people and they can print forever off the one computer on which they receive it. I clicked the link, and the good people at Sage even had the wisdom to create a Macintosh version of the program. Now, presumably, I also need to download the PC version in case someone to whom I’m mailing the program has a PC. Also, it is unclear what will happen if someday I decide to use another computer as my main computer. Will I have the same permissions? Different ones?

    This is a disappointing development because, like Jonathan, I've published a good deal of work with Sage, a great commercial scholarly publisher who's now intent on implementing restrictive DRM schemes--apparently, without seeking much in the way of author input. Sigh. Hopefully we'll begin to get at some of these issues at the upcoming National Communication Association annual convention, in which I'm sitting on a panel with several academic book publishers to discuss just these kinds of developments. I'll keep you posted....