Margaret Atwood on McLuhan’s copyright contraband

I’ve just stumbled upon this great anecdote that Margaret Atwood told the Globe & Mail in 2011, about Marshall McLuhan and his first book’s tussle with copyright.

I was one of those people who luckily was able to obtain a copy of The Mechanical Bride, early on. You know that he had to pull off the shelves – do you know this book at all?

He reproduced a lot of ads, from soap companies and cigarette companies and everything. He showed the actual ad, and then he would do an analysis of them. And it is very funny.

But the companies whose ads they were took exception. Copyright issues. And he had to pull the book. But he had them in his cellar and if you had contact you could purchase one out of the back window of Marshall McLuhan’s house – so The Mechanical Bride, a piece of genius.

McLuhan’s work sometimes shows a critical concern with copyright; The Medium is the Massage anticipates and encapsulates more or less the whole argument of Mark Rose’s 1993 book Authors and Owners:

“Authorship” – in the sense we know it today, individual intellectual effort related to the book as an economic commodity – was practically unknown before the advent of print technology. … The invention of print did away with anonymity, fostering ideas of literary fame and the habit of considering intellectual effort as private property. … The rising consumer-oriented culture became concerned with labels of authenticity and protection against theft and piracy. The idea of copyright – “the exclusive right to reproduce, publish, and sell the matter and form of a literary or artistic work” – was born. (122)

This section goes on to theorize photocopying as a democratized, user-driven form of “instant publishing”: Anybody can now become both author and publisher. Take any books on any subject and custom-make your own book by simply xeroxing a chapter from this one, a chapter from that one – instant steal!” (123). McLuhan here presents an image of radical appropriation, of the kind that copyright maximalists like the photocopy royalty-collecting agency Access Copyright (formerly CanCopy) have been invoking to lobby and litigate against fair dealing for years now. This is not to say that McLuhan’s image exemplifies fair dealing, the users’ right in copyright law that allows for certain limited reuse of copyrighted works (see “What is Fair Dealing”): he leaves unclear whether the hypothetical user is assembling just one compilation (which would be more fair), or mass-photocopying multiple copies (which would be less fair); and whether the user is using the compilation non-commercially (more fair) or for sale (less fair).

Since not only The Mechanical Bride but also The Medium is the Massage, War and Peace in the Global Village, and Culture is Our Business made extensive collage use of cut-up print media samples, maybe there is, in Atwood’s suggestive anecdote, a fuller story worth looking into. One wonders if copyright was a legal pretext exploited by the advertisers whose work he reproduced simply to suppress what he had to say about them – what he had to say about postwar advertising wasn’t good. Atwood’s description of McLuhan’s purportedly infringing work as “genius” also related interestingly to her own statements on copyright from around the same time, which tended to side with proponents of the kind of copyright maximalism that would severely curtail not only fair dealing but even the kind of licensed, commercial reuse that made so much of McLuhan’s work possible and so distinctive in the first place (see Knopf; McCutcheon, “It’s unfair”). Were books like The Mechanical Bride and The Medium is the Massage in production today, it’s conceivable that the hefty fees now being asked for permission to reprint song lyrics, poetry lines, and photographs (McCutcheon, “Cento” 92) could prove prohibitive, and prevent them from ever getting to print.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “Margaret Atwood, uncensored.” The Globe and Mail 29 Apr. 2011. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/editorials/margaret-atwood-uncensored/article578234/?page=all
Knopf, Howard. “To Margaret Atwood: Copyright and Cars cannot conflate.” Excess Copyright 14 Mar. 2011 http://excesscopyright.blogspot.ca/2011/03/to-margaret-atwood-copyright-and-cars.html
McCutcheon, Mark A. “The Cento, Romanticism, and Copyright.” English Studies in Canada 38.2 (2012): 71-101. http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/ESC/article/view/21280/16093
—. “It’s unfair to impugn #cdnpse…” Tweet 7:27 pm, 14 Oct. 2012 https://twitter.com/sonicfiction/status/257668880841973762
McLuhan, Marshall and Jerome Agel. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967). Berkeley: Gingko, 2001.
Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
“What is Fair Dealing and how does it relate to copyright?” Library, Simon Fraser U, 4 Mar. 2015 http://www.lib.sfu.ca/faqs/copyright-fair-dealing

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4 responses to “Margaret Atwood on McLuhan’s copyright contraband

  1. A back window book bootlegger…because of copyright issues. An interesting slant on the McLuhan Equation. Hmmm.

  2. Basic Books, Inc. v. Kinko’s Graphics Corporation pretty well settled this issue in American courts. Kinko’s was making course books by copying chapters from various textbooks and selling them at a nice profit. The publishing industry, rightly, was not amused and won the legal battle.

  3. How wonderful. And what of the gestures of collage C19-20? Could that happen now?

    • academicalism

      I suppose one short answer is that, due to the digital media boom, collage is happening more, and in more ways, than ever before – although the vast majority of contemporary digital collage is user-generated, non-commercial, and neither gets placed nor seeks to get placed in traditional cultural forums and distribution modes like art galleries and published print books. (Not that such collage’s proliferation, instead, in digital media means that rights-holders won’t try to have certain targeted works taken down, whether via legal recourse to copyright, trademark, patent, or a combination of these; or via technological means like DRM, web-crawling copyright bots, or other tools available to powerful rights-holders in the increasingly surveilled and privatized Internet.)

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