Book Review: Argentina Copyleft

The Heinrich Böll Foundation has recently edited a reader on intellectual property and free culture movements in Argentina. It is entitled “Argentina Copyleft”, and contains a range of essays from librarians, artists, scholars, activists, and programmers.

The book places particular emphasis on the plight of libraries, and those who use them, under Argentina’s restrictive 1933 copyright law, and another 2001 one that is cynically named “law for the advancement of the book and the culture of reading”. The country’s regulations are particularly tough, as they do not include exceptions common in most copyright regimes, e.g. for librarians. As Lucía Pelaya and Ana Sanllorenti write, their colleagues are thus constantly under threat from law enforcement if they want to preserve their institutes’ portfolios. Or, as Federico Reggiano puts it, “one cannot pursue serious research in Argentina anymore without becoming a criminal.”

A case of copyright enforcement that has become known beyond the border of Argentina has been that of Horacio Potel, professor of philosophy at the University of Lanús and webmaster of a series of online libraries featuring Spanish translations of the works of Heidegger, Derrida, and others. In an interview with Beatriz Busaniche, Potel explains his motivation for creating these archives that eventually got him charged by the Argentinian state (the case was later dropped). Works by foreign authors, he says, are often just not available in Argentina. The rights are held by international corporations which neglect them for years, and eventual print runs are small and sell out soon.

One particularly smart essay, also dealing with publishing monopolies, was penned by Federico Heinz, spokesman of the GNU project. He writes about “electronic books, dry water, and other mythical creatures”. It is a powerful refutation of ebooks, which he says are, in fact, digital archives with a use that’s limited even compared to printed books, only marketed by the publishing industry in order to preserve control over the business.

While the book features its share of tales about the librarian / artist / student in distress, it also highlights successes from Argentina that might not be known abroad. Marilina Winik, for instance, writes about “copyleft publishing houses”. First there was censorship during the military dictatorship in the seventies and eighties, she finds, later a sell-out to international corporations in the nineties, and finally a national financial crisis in 2001: Reason enough for independent publishers to start using licenses such as Creative Commons, and for some authors to add individual comments like this one by writer Paul Strucchi:

Everybody may do with this whatever he likes. Distribute me, if you find it interesting. The only thing I ask from you is not to make money at my expense. Just let me know, that’s pretty simple with today’s technology. If you don’t do it, it’s better I never get to know, because otherwise I will trash your car with the steering wheel, and then you can complain to your lawyers.

The essays are clearly written by copyleft advocates, and sometimes they suffer from an overly positive stance towards their subjects, when for instance musicians are said to generally favor P2P technology, or cloud computing is presented as having “no advantage” for users. What I missed, then, from the essays, are some numbers on the status quo, be it the amount people employing free/open source software or the count of publishing houses using copyleft licensing.

Overall, “Argentina Copyleft” is a good starter to get an overview of what is going on with the country’s cultural commons. Some chapters, especially those specific to Argentina, are worth reading more than others, though.

“Argentina Copyleft” is published under a Creative Commons by-sa license and is available as a free download in German from the Heinrich Böll Foundation and in Spanish from Vía Libre.

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