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United logos of America

When I visited New York City for the first time I was overwhelmed by its vivacity and diversity: a place where there’s every kind of everything imaginable and everything is a photo waiting to be made. Immersed in the teeming chaos of the streets, I stopped speaking English and my camera took over for my eyes. An enormous flag appeared appearing to be simultaneously American and not. As I approached, logos emerged in the place of stars and stripes. Parallel rows and evenly spaced clusters of corporate logos made up these United States of America. I haven’t thought about the logo flag for years. While reading Bound By Law, the memory of the flag resurfaced unbidden as a powerful illustration of the concept of “rights (1)? or “permission culture (2).? Driven to understand this indelible image, I have learned that the concept of “permission culture? is attributed to Lawrence Lessig, a prominent advocate of reducing copyright protection. Lessig believes that American culture is one “in which copyright restrictions are pervasive and enforced to the extent that any and all uses of copyrighted works need to be explicitly leased (3).? Clearly Aoki agrees with Lessig. What I appreciated most about his book however was the balanced perspective he offers on a debate that is usually characterized only by the extremes of piracy or absolute control. Previously lacking Aoki’s view on the topic, I leaped to protect the interests of my many artist friends and my own creative profession. Thankfully, he taught me several important things about copyright law that, quite frankly, I didn’t know or fully appreciate: • Fair use regulates the balance between protecting expression and maintaining access to the “raw material? of creativity (4); • Creativity requires a rich public domain from which we can all draw inspiration (5). As a graphic designer, I experience the chilling effect of increasing restrictions on fair use. I recently learned from a photographer I work with that a number of cities have actually copyrighted their skylines. At the same time, this photographer and I were jumping through hoops to obtain permission to include the masthead of the Wall Street Journal in one of our shots … One incident makes it particularly clear to me that that fair use restrictions probably have gone too far. A dispute arose over the right to use a candid photo of a person in a piece I designed. In the end, I couldn’t use the image even though it caused no demonstrable market harm or personal injury of any sort. At the time it occurred, this incident frustrated me creatively. The image was beautiful and the best of the bunch available. After reading Aoki however, I see the incident as an example of how the implied threat of a lawsuit influences the interpretation and practice of fair use law. The possibility of legal issues now factors into all my photo choices. At the same time, I see how digital technology does threaten legitimate copyright protection. People with just a little technical savvy pull photos, logos and all sorts of assets off the Internet and reproduce them without permission in publications they produce. I’ve had my own work appropriated and used without my permission. Aoki convinced me however, that the best response is not further restrictions on fair use. We can’t be so intimidated by the creativity digital technology enables that we copyright reality. • A flag comprised of logos is an apt sign of our cultural times. Paul Rand, one of the most influential graphic designers in the U.S. said that, “A logo is a flag, a signature, an escutcheon (6).? According to Aristotle, one the most influential thinkers in “Western? culture, logos refers to argument from reason. I say let’s argue from reason: our cultural survival requires a teeming creative commons. ______________________________________________________________________ References 1. Aoki, James, Boyle, James, Jenkins, Jennifer. Bound by Law: Tales from the Public Domain. (Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain: 2006). Pg. 19. 2. “Permission culture.? Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permission_culture. Retrieved on 27 March 2008. 3. “Permission culture.? Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Lessig. Retrieved on 27 March 2008. 4. Aoki. Bound by Law. pg. 34 5. Ibid., pg. 33 6. Rand, Paul. “Logos, flags, and Escutcheons.? Paul-Rand.com. http://www.paul-rand.com/thoughts_logosflags.shtml Retrieved on 27 March 2008.