I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to protect a representation these days. Anyone remember reading Baudrillard? I remember reading that whole treatise on simulated reality years ago and associating the whole thing with war and television. These days, I’m pretty sure he was thinking about copyright. Just kidding. I’m pretty sure he was thinking about high modernity and everything that travels with it, including copyright. “Capital, which is immoral and unscrupulous, can only function behind a moral superstructure,” a hellish and mundane everyday space from which rules of ownership and entitlement emanate, along with all the other things that make the late industrial age go round.
I’ve spent this whole week complaining about copyright to anyone who will listen. In news that is not news: copyright and digital access do not play well together. My project is slowly drifting toward issues similar to those explored by Bernie’s recent posts, but in the context of intellectual property rights within the U.S. The intellectual colonialism that Bernie has so eloquently described in the context of his own work is cropping up in the project I’m trying to put together as well, as archaic laws and procedures of ownership take precedent over what I believe to be the clear and straightforward expectations of the actual persons who produced the original content.
The small corpus of work I’m interested in was collected in the late 1970s by a mutable and ever fractured collective of Marxists, anarchists, and their various sympathizers and affiliates. The raw audio footage collected by these people offers glimpses of their interjections in the logics of late capitalism, as they rallied and lectured and marched against the racial violence of industrial labor in the manufacturing core of the nation. Locking away the raw material of this revolutionary effort under obscure and imprecise copyright, rendering it unheard and unknown, does that material violence at its very center.
Things don’t have to be this way. As Tim Brooks explains:
“Nations around the world recognize the value of historical sound recordings through laws that encourage their preservation and accessibility. National archives preserve and catalog them, and both public and private entities disseminate them (nowadays via the Internet) to scholars and the public at large as they enter the public domain. Except in the United States. In this country the laws have become so skewed toward the interests of present-day “rights holders” that, almost without notice or even intent, most of the recorded past has been locked up for generations to come—perhaps forever. Permission is required to hear it.”
Blame neoliberalism (I do.) Blame academic timidity (I do.) Blame a lack of public investment in cultural preservation (I do.) The hurdles are broad and deep and endless, but this material needs to be heard.
How would you transcribe a laugh? How long—exactly—is a person’s sigh? Even the most expert transcriptionists struggle with these questions. The problem of transcription is especially relevant for sources like those I’m discussing here, where the magnetic tape is damaged in places, and in other spots the recording was simply never very good. Often people talk over one another, or go on and off microphone, or are covered over by random ambient noise in the environment. On a transcript, these are errors, or [unintelligible.] The false starts and stutters are mostly lost. The texture of the experience is simply and necessarily removed in the production of its secondary form. The errors that are lost in the process of translation are themselves important historical artifacts, and they need to be listened to and appreciated as such. The random bits from long gone soundscapes can tell a great deal about the past, if they’re available to be heard.
Well indexed audio files can transform the way audio functions in historical research. An index renders audio material searchable—in much the same way a transcript allows—but unlike a transcribed file, an index forces a listener to be attentive to the audio in its original form. Audio sources are simply a unique form of historical artifact, and the full impact of sound material is lost in the process of transcription. Just as a docent’s description of a photograph could never replace the image itself, a transcript cannot be allowed to stand in for the audio it describes. A transcriptionist’s narrative is in too many ways their own, as even the most professional and well-intentioned scribe may not share or even recognize the nuances of human expression present in the original narrative. All audio sources really must be heard, but I feel a personal compulsion (and it really has gotten quite strong and irrational) to recover and restore this particular collection of audio material to its original revolutionary anti-capitalist non-hierarchical intentional audience. This material was never designed for a preservation copyright, no matter how vital it is to preserve.
 Jean Baudrilliard. “From The Precession of Simulacra” in The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends ed. David H. Richter (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007) 1939.
 Tim Brooks. “Only in America: The Unique Status of Sound Recordings under U.S. Copyright Law and How it Threatens Our Audio Heritage.” American Music 27 no 2 (Summer 2009) 125.