Copyright Sabotages the Great Cultural Transmission Belt

The fire of Alexandria, woodcuts by Hermann Göll, 1876. (Source: Wikipedia.)

In a column back in April, David Brooks wrote:

“Between 1935 and 1975, Will and Ariel Durant published a series of volumes that together were known as “The Story of Civilization.” They basically told human history (mostly Western history) as an accumulation of great ideas and innovations, from the Egyptians, through Athens, Magna Carta, the Age of Faith, the Renaissance and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The series was phenomenally successful, selling over two million copies.”

Brooks lamented that this story is no longer learned by the young:

“Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke.”

Durant himself was deeply concerned with the transmission of cultural heritage. In The Lessons of History, he wrote:

“Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we should be savages again.”

And in the first volume of The Story of Civilization he wrote:

“For civilization is not something inborn or imperishable; it must be acquired anew by every generation, and any serious interruption in its financing or its transmission may bring it to an end. Man differs from the beast only by education, which may be defined as the technique of transmitting civilization.” (…)
“As family-rearing, and then writing, bound the generations together, handing down the lore of the dying to the young, so print and commerce and a thousand ways of communication may bind the civilizations together, and preserve for future cultures all that is of value for them in our own. Let us, before we die, gather up our heritage, and offer it to our children.”

One of the greatest threats to cultural transmission, and which interrupts it all the time, is intellectual property, and especially copyright. It is an absolute travesty, for example, that The Story of Civilization itself is out of print.

It’s true that, because of the shift that Brooks cites, there is not as much demand for such a cultural treasure as there should be. But even today, the series is beloved so many that, especially with today’s print-on-demand services, I’m sure making new copies available in print would be feasible and profitable if not for copyright.

I first consumed the series in 2011 by listening to the excellent books-on-tape version, which I was able to find on archive.org. Since then, those files were taken down, and I don’t know if they were put back up. Thankfully “official” editions are now available for purchase in both audiobook (although the narration is not as good as the old recording) and ebook.

Countless other classics have not been so fortunate. For example, I still can’t find a decent ebook version of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (fortunately there’s an audiobook, which I started listening to this weekend). And I’ve been dying to read The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, but it is both out of print and unavailable digitally.

Copyright is tantamount to book burning. See for example the tragic story of Google’s “Project Ocean,” told in The Atlantic article, “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria”:

“It was strange to me, the idea that somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them. It’s like that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie where they put the Ark of the Covenant back on a shelf somewhere, lost in the chaos of a vast warehouse. It’s there. The books are there. People have been trying to build a library like this for ages — to do so, they’ve said, would be to erect one of the great humanitarian artifacts of all time — and here we’ve done the work to make it real and we were about to give it to the world and now, instead, it’s 50 or 60 petabytes on disk, and the only people who can see it are half a dozen engineers on the project who happen to have access because they’re the ones responsible for locking it up.”

Thankfully services like Archive.org, Project Gutenberg, and BitTorrent do much to limit the destruction.