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Patry’s Moral Panics: a brief book review

January 10, 2011

William Patry. Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 266 p.

Those who read this blog know my feelings (hostile) toward DRM and the media companies who use these mechanisms to further their monopolistic aims. Anyone who shares these views, regardless to what degree, will find Patry’s latest title a pleasurable read. Clearly, copyright is a topic of both great professional and personal interest to Patry–the jacket bio somewhat megalomaniacally refers to him as “the most prolific scholar of copyright in history,” which, even if true, one should not formulate thusly–and he wields his antimonopolistic stick with some glee here.

The central points of his book are clearly articulated. One is that copyright holders, mainly in the form of large media companies represented in his text mostly by the MPAA and RIAA and their larger members, use inflammatory language laced with inappropriate metaphors in order to demonize their opponents. Further, this is nothing new, and Patry uses “copyright wars” in the plural with good reason, as he demonstrates that these wars have been going on for over two centuries, with remarkably consistent and ill-considered rhetoric employed by those who seek monopolies.

Patry repeatedly states that the media firms are abusing copyright, and he adheres closely to its constitutional basis, namely that it was created in order to serve the progress of the science and arts. He makes his case forcefully, if perhaps a bit one-sidedly. On occasion he does allude to the fact that the opponents of the media firms (does he include himself?) often use inappropriate metaphors to support their own positions, but provides little detail or balance. For a reader such as myself, this is not much of a problem, but it does undermine the general credibility of his position.

Patry makes eminently clear that monopolies built on an overextended copyright stifle innovation and are merely intended to protect outmoded business models and enrich already grossly enriched media companies. He is on solid footing here, and offers ample evidence of the gap between consumer desires and the products/services offered by media firms. We all know where this leads in the digital world, and Patry makes a clear case that what is needed are new business models and innovations, not protectionist legislation, which inevitably merely extends the life of terminally ill business models.

Given that it was published by Oxford UP, utilizes hundreds of footnotes, and cites a dizzying array of case histories and academic sources, Patry’s book presents itself in the form of an academic treatise. Alas, it often reads more like a polemic, which is a tad unfortunate, since those who agree with Patry will only feel self-righteous glee when he derides the MPAA and their ilk, while those who disagree will dismiss the book out of hand. Also, Patry frequently cites Wikipedia, both in the footnotes as well as verbatim in the body. I get what he is doing–namely, playing the wholly digitally connected and savvy arbiter–but given that undergraduates are told that Wikipedia is not a citable source (reference works have always been on the list of “cite with caution” titles, regardless of medium), one wishes he had eschewed it.

More strikingly, Patry makes no mention of Creative Commons in the entire text. Given that he lauds the public domain while often decrying the absurd length of current copyright protection, one would expect that Creative Commons would deserve at least a mention. It leaves the reader to wonder if the omission is deliberate. Patry focuses here mainly on media products coming from media firms–major studios, record labels, and established publishers–ignoring for the most part one of the major innovations of the Internet age, namely giving a much wider audience the means to distribute media and manage their own rights, often using Creative Commons. With hundreds of millions, if not billions, of CC licenses in use, it simply has to be mentioned in this context.

That said, this is an enjoyable book to read, offers myriad points and arguments to ponder, and Patry’s dexterity with sources and his knowledge of the industries of which he writes make the book largely successful as a project. For any librarian or academic who stills needs to be convinced that we have a role to play defending the rights of those who wish to use information, it is a must read.

  1. March 15, 2011 22:30

    The inner copyright nerd in me is interested. Added to my to-read list!

    • Dale permalink*
      March 15, 2011 22:35

      Glad to know I’m not the only copyright nerd. It’s one of those topics that most people wish would just go away, but the more I learn, the more appealing it becomes.

      • March 16, 2011 07:02

        Fink is as well. Probably more so than me. Let me know if you ever want to chat about Canadian copyright since it may be quite new to you.

  2. Dale permalink*
    March 16, 2011 12:10

    I would enjoy having such a conversation. When I arrived, I spent a couple of days reading up on Canadian copyright to get at least a broad sense of the key differences. It’s similar to European/German copyright law in some ways, which helps since I’ve recently been enlightened on German copyright law, which is odd and user-hostile to say the least.

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