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Jay Lemke is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York. He has also been Professor in the PhD Programs in Science Education, Learning Technologies, and Literacy Language and Culture at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and most recently adjunct Professor in Communication at the University of California - San Diego and Senior Research Scientist in the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC). Professor Lemke's research investigates multimedia communication, learning, and emotion in the context of social and cultural change.

Entries in popular culture (1)

Popular Culture Supersedes Copyright Law

What are the limits of private ownership of popular culture?

The people own what the people love. When a character, a story, a fictional world becomes so popular that people want to make it their own, then it passes beyond the limits of private property and becomes the property of us all.

The world and characters of Harry Potter were created initially by JK Rowling, but in the years since, Harry’s fans have written and published online nearly 300,000 original stories of their own using these characters, places and themes, not to mention tens of thousands of works of fan art, music, video and multimedia. Rowling meanwhile has sold rights to Harry to a very small number of movie studios and game producers, toy makers and even a candy company. She has made a billion dollars, and the others have made even more. Copyright law has done its work, perhaps too well.

Of course she has the right to profit, substantially and globally, for having given us all the pleasures and the resources of the imagination that come from Harry and his world. But only up to the point at which her creations become the raw material of the public imagination, the point at which what was originally her own intellectual or cultural property becomes part of the common culture, folk culture, the people’s culture, our culture.



So also with Star Wars and Star Trek, or with The Lord of the Rings, and many other recent works, just as much as with Cinderella, Pinocchio, or Don Quixote. What matters to public vs. private ownership is not how long ago they were created, but how much they have become part of the common culture of our childhoods and the raw material of our grown-up fantasies. No one today can really “own” Harry or Hogwarts, Darth Vader or R2D2, any more than they can own Macbeth or the Emerald City.
Which means what, in practice? Only that the original creators, much less those to whom rights have been sold, cannot tell us what we can and cannot create, privately or publicly, but not-for-profit, using these building blocks of the human imagination. The copyright owners can continue to reap their profits, and control the commercial use of their creations for some reasonable time, but they must not be allowed to try to control or coerce the popular culture use of these creations.

We all know that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was corrupt. It was created solely for the benefit of the large media companies, and not in the public interest or even for the good of the writers and creators of new works. It was opposed by the nation’s public libraries, by the universities, and by every fair voice. Its sellout to corporate greed is a national scandal, and private persons have every moral right to ignore it.

As Harry ignored the Ministry’s decrees to try to take control of Hogwart’s.