On the perils of absolute ownership, tractors, and T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot astride a John Deere tractor.
Photo remix by David S. Roh.

Assistant professor of English at the University of Utah

What does T.S. Eliot have in common with a John Deere tractor?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. The John Deere company (owned by General Motors) recently set the blogosphere ablaze when it filed a claim with the U.S. Copyright Office arguing that, in effect, the farmers of America don’t own their tractors, they’re just licensing them. Thanks to a controversial clause in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act—written and passed at the height of industrial panic over file-sharing technologies and peer-to-peer protocols—any product that has software embedded within its systems can in fact be claimed as off-limits from modification.

The crux of John Deere’s argument is that since the company owns the patents to the software system integrated into new models of tractors, they in fact own the tractor in perpetuity. Similar to the logic of computer software on your operating system (you purchase a license, not the software itself), the DMCA grants a bundle of rights to the licensee and licensing body. Therefore, as software becomes more integral to the latest model of automobiles, owners will find themselves stripped of rights that they previously enjoyed. For example, weekend hobbyists will no longer have a right to tinker or modify their cars with impunity, since that might be considered “circumvention” or alteration beyond the parameters laid out by GM’s legal team. What makes this example particularly egregious is that it runs counter to the individuated do-it-yourself culture of farming and our very American ideals of property rights and self-reliance.

So how does this relate to T. S. Eliot? Eliot’s estate was once known to claim absolute ownership of his work, going as far as denying scholars and critics access to his poetry in scholarly studies. Critics who were interested, for example, in exploring some of Eliot’s more controversial papers or positing a thesis running counter to the Eliot estates’ wishes might find themselves locked out from his papers. As Jonathan Bate has pointed out, the consequences are quite real: Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Eliot is notable for its distinct lack of quotations and overabundance of paraphrase; Ackroyd explains in his preface that the Eliot estate has denied him from quoting extensively. It was only when the Eliot estate decided to adopt a less draconian policy that scholars began to write more liberally about his work; subsequently, Eliot’s reputation and institutionalization in the Modernist canon is now considered beyond dispute.

Common to both scenarios is the stifling of technological and cultural development. Farmers who purchase John Deere tractors expect that they’re free to tinker with the machinery and repair or modify it as they see fit, depending on the particulars of their situation. The idea of the John Deere company wielding a stranglehold on how they can manipulate the material object thanks to an obscure copyright clause seems counterintuitive at best; a gross violation of property rights at worst. Likewise, scholars toiling away on a lonely monograph generate new ideas based on a body of work that has seeped into the cultural consciousness. Implied in the statutory and social contract between artists and the public is the understanding that there is a commons from which everyone should eventually have the freedom to draw. Creative works are granted a monopoly for limited times and then are supposed to turn over to the public domain; but even during periods of monopoly, the fair use clause gives wide latitude for critical commentary. Cultural critics want to tinker with the material that has already returned to the cultural commons.

The problem is, those goods aren’t going anywhere. Intellectual property law, in its byzantine and oftentimes hamfisted manner, has become so broad that it supersedes the principles of creative incentives, thereby creating counterintuitive scenarios—such as tractors that you cannot own, let alone modify, thanks to software code embedded within the machinery. Or, in the realm of literary studies, only being allowed to quote 1.7 syllables of a 17-syllable haiku, thanks to an absurd ten percent rule (which doesn’t exist in statutory form). Our expensive litigation system skews in favor of the copyright holders; upstarts often wilt under pressure.

You can credit this kind of madness to two things: our cultural reverence for solitary genius, and our state and corporate paranoia over unregulated information exchange—best manifested in digital networks. Both have led to overreaches in intellectual property law, granting copyright holders (not necessarily the original creators) de facto veto power over subsequent artists and denying ownership of material objects through licensing schemes.

Thankfully, a countermovement is brewing that has caused some backtracking by the more brazen copyright abusers. John Deere, stung by the negative publicity, have put out a statement clarifying their claims of pure ownership. The Eliot estate long ago abandoned its scorched earth campaign against literary critics, much to its—as well as literary culture’s—benefit.

I’d argue that another reason for the pushback after so many years of unmitigated copyright expansion is cultural. Thanks to a mode of cultural creativity that operates according to the free exchange of information and knowledge, facilitated by the modern network, artists, and indeed, even some content owners themselves, are beginning to see the value in the freedom to tinker with both technology and culture.

It is a narrow and small world indeed if the John Deeres and literary estates of the world can dictate the future of creativity. Instead, we should encourage a multiplicity of voices to create a symphonic chorus.

And hot rod tractors.


David S. Roh is author of Illegal Literature: Toward a Disruptive Creativity and coeditor of Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. He is assistant professor of digital humanities and Asian American literature at the University of Utah. More information: www.davidsroh.com and @drdr78.

Illegal Literature is a clear headed look at the copyright protections surrounding authorship and the combined legal, material, and aesthetic construction of authorship over the modern period.”
—Joseph Tabbi, University of Illinois at Chicago

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