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Against obscurantism

Argentinian philosophy professor Horacio Potel on the fight against restrictive copyright laws that are criminalising teaching and research

On the list of countries with the most draconian laws on authors' rights, Argentina occupies 6th place. The following article stems from the reader "Argentina Copyleft! New rules for the digital age? The view from Argentina" which features a number of articles that demonstrate how restrictive copyright laws are hindering or entirely blocking access to education and culture. It also showcases a variety of Argentian initiatives which are fighting for fair access to knowledge and information. The reader was published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation to coincide with the Frankfurt Book Fair where Argentina was this year's guest country.

The year 2009 was a milestone in the Argentinian copyright debate, defining the before and after. The restrictive nature of the intellectual property law number 11.723 brought things to a head. Until that point none of the ordinary people who were regularly breaking the law were actually prosecuted. One heard unlikely sounding reports in the local media about cases of music being exchanged on P2P networks. But in 2009, something happened that no one in their right mind would have believed possible: the Argentinian Book Chamber filed charges against a university professor who was running a number of websites on philosophy. Among other things, these featured unpublished or unavailable texts by Derrida, Heidegger and Nietzsche. Horacio Potel's name was picked up by the European, Asian and US media. The case of the Argentinian professor who was taken to court for putting philosophical texts online, with no intent to make a profit, made it painfully clear that if everyone breaks the law, anyone could be prosecuted.

Beatriz Busaniche: When did you start uploading the philosophical texts and why?

Horacio Potel: Over ten years ago on 22 December 1999, Nietzsche was born in Spanish – in our times of ultra high-speed change, this is the equivalent of a entire generation. There was no broadband or blogs in those days, no Facebook and no Google, but for the first time I had instant access to all this information and and all free! But in those days there was little or nothing about philosophy on the Internet. And even less about Nietzsche, whom I was fascinated by at the time. So I decided to contribute to the construction of this network and compile a selection of Nietzsche's texts in Spanish, because almost everything was in English back then. According to Altavista (the Google of the day) there were only 15 Spanish texts on and by Nietzsche. On the night my first Nietzsche site, "Nietzscheana", went online, the number of his texts available online in Spanish doubled.

In my naivete I had assumed that the existence of such a wonderful medium for sharing texts would mean that within a decade, the majority if not the entirety of philosophical writ could be available online. Which would mean that everyone would have a complete library in their homes, making it unnecessary to travel or wait, and that the 'books' could be leant to thousands simultaneously, and would be easy to locate. And finally I thought of philosophy magazines which are published once a year at most, and then only in editions of 50, which is barely enough to supply the specialist libraries. This would all change, I thought. Everything that had ever been or would ever be produced, could be published online. This was utterly fantastic, I thought.

Writing a philosophical text always involves taking on what has been written before. Philosophy is a dialogue with tradition: you cannot philosophise without philosophical texts. The situation at the time was not good and, unfortunately, it is still no good. Book printing technology has become obsolete and yet we are still bound by its limits, among them bad copyright laws, which are still in effect thanks to lobbying by printed book manufacturers, and which are still interpreted as they were in 1933 when the law was introduced. The then lawmakers would never in their worst nightmares have been able to imagine how the law is being implemented today, which is to criminalise anything that runs contrary to the cultural monopoly.

The printed philosophy books which are published by international corporations are costly and have only a brief lifespan. Print numbers are minimal and fewer still go on sale to the public and even if they do come our way, they are sold out in a matter of weeks. This means people have to wait years or decades to find out whether the publisher, who has the exclusive rights for reproduction, suddenly decides that it might make financial sense to reprint the books that are so essential to our profession, or whether they simply decide against it. The specialist libraries don't stock a lot of the stuff and their hands are tied by laws that result in the artificial scarcity of objects of cultural value, a scarcity that makes no sense at all because it would be so easy to increase tenfold the reach of analogue libraries using digital technology. This is what inspired me to put three digital libraries online. After the Nietzsche site, the Spanish Heidegger library went online in 2000 and the Derrida equivalent followed in 2001.

Who pressed charges against you? Were you offered an out of court settlement?

The Argentinian Book Chamber (CAL) together with the French Embassy filed charges for the violation of so-called intellectual property. Thus began a process which nearly landed me behind bars. As it happened, however, an out of court settlement was never an option. The CAL and the French Embassy decided not to pursue the case which left the Argentinian state to step up as plaintiff. So there was no one to reach an agreement with, because this was now an official offence. Although the charges date back to 2007, I didn't hear a word about any of this until 2009, when the police banged on my door in the middle of the night to check my address. It was a terrible situation. All the police said was: "You will already know what this is about." It was not until the next day that we were able to find out from the courts what the charges entailed. I, a philosophy professor, was charged with disseminating philosophical texts for free.

How was the case handled up to the point when the charges were dropped?

I was charged, my lawyer filed a nullity plea, which was rejected, as was the appeal of this rejection and then the trial got underway. I was ordered to pay a fine of 40,000 Pesos, the appeal was rejected and while we were waiting for them to announce the start of the trial, in which I was expected to get up to three years in prison, the state prosecutor suddenly decided to drop the charges.

Is the case closed or are you expecting an appeal?

No, because the Argentinian state was the only plaintiff there can be no appeal.

Who gave you support?

Mostly Internet users to whom I am extremely grateful. This trial which was thrown at me by the French Embassy and the Argentinian Book Chamber, only showed me how right I had been about the need for setting up these digital libraries and how many people it enabled to finish their degrees because they had access to the texts they needed. The support we received from all sides was absolutely incredible. We were able to draw attention to the case through Facebook and this snowballed until it was picked up by blogs around the world and eventually the mainstream media. And then I would like to thank the Fundacion Via Libre and Beatriz Busaniche as well as the philosophy faculty at the University of Buenos Aires, which published a resolution (pdf) condemning the charges against me, and the Pirate Party, which launched a huge campaign to draw attention to the case. Among the journalists I wouldn't want to forget Facundo Garcia of Pagina/12 and the people from FM la Tribu [free online radio station – ed.] who stood by us all the way. And then of course my fantastic lawyer, Leonardo Hernandez.

I believe it was all good training for moving forward in the organisation of Internet users. We have to defend our rights against the wave of obscurantism which corporations and embassies are trying to force upon us in the name of Mr. Money. Hopefully this movement will grow and mature because what happened to me was not a one-off – it was part of the global re-privatisation of everything that became publicly accessible through the Internet. We have to be aware of the international dimensions of this, because they are manifesting themselves every day in increasingly repressive laws that restrict our right to information. Laws which, among other things are criminalising teaching and research.

I am a professor of ethics and research methodology at the University National of Lanus. And I ask myself what I will do when the texts that I want to share with my students are not available in either bookshops or libraries? Tailor teaching and research programmes to fit the economic interests of printed book manufacturers? Or implicate myself and my students in criminal activities? When a book is not available in bookshops and you have no idea when you will be able to get hold of it or whether it will ever be printed again, or when it is not even available in the library, what do you do? It is time to ask what is more important: the profits of a few multinationals who refuse to recognise the sign of the times and resist new business models, or the desperate need for Argentina and the whole of South America to catch up in the areas of education and culture? Especially because the technical means for the free distribution of knowledge are already in place.

Do you see your case as part of a wider-reaching debate on the dissemination of and access to culture?

The Internet gives us the means to free ourselves from the clutches of the self-proclaimed cultural intercessors and delegates and to chose our own cultural heritage. This makes the old cultural industry nervous, as does the fact that the dissemination of information is taking place so incredibly more efficiently and inexpensively that ever before, makin the dream of free culture potentially available to everyone.

Nothing is being done to bring 20th century libraries up to scratch. They don't have enough of anything, their stocks are outdated, and at the same time, the libraries of the future are being stifled in their infancy by putting injunctions on librarians. And the ultimate insult is that this is being facilitated by laws with such pompous-sounding names as "the law for the advancement of the book and the culture of reading" which, by defending the monopoly on the right to reproduction, is ultimately rubber-stamping the disappearance of texts and the culture of reading. One should not forget that my trial was intended to close three public libraries. That was the intention of the Argentinian Book Chamber and the cultural attache of the French Embassy. Luckily they failed.

As much as we should avoid the trap of thinking that "the book" belongs to the representatives of the publishing industry, we should also guard against the false belief that copyright defends the rights of the copyright holder. The opposite is the case. Copyright favours the control of our cultural heritage by an ever smaller number of private owners. The copyright is the medium that book-printing corporations use to appropriate the works of writers for purely commercial ends, so that all other companies, and the authors themselves, are robbed of the right to reproduce even their own work. Copyright confers a monopoly on the utilisation of content, and like every monopoly, it prevents competition which could at least bring down the exorbitant price of books. This is particularly pertinent in a country like ours where the majority of philosophy books are printed by foreign companies who compel us to pay through the nose for their products.

Culture, knowledge and tradition are not the work of "authors". It is astonishing that the same gentlemen who carried the enlightened idea of the free and sovereign individual to the grave so as to sell us the consumerism of the subordinated subject instead, are now appealing to the metaphysics of subjectivity with an eye on maximising profits. And it is astounding that they are choosing to do so in a case that involves Heidegger and Derrida who both opposed the notion of creative subjectivity as the origin of the "work" or the "book". There are no privileged atoms which are kissed by the muse and spread light among the passive masses. There are no atoms and the constitution of the "author" grows, like everything else, out of the metamorphosis of things that came before.

Heidegger and Derrida showed that before or in the process of the formation of a subject that calls itself "I", an entire world was already in place, that we are formed before we are, by heritage and tradition, through the passing down and continuation of messages. Moreover, for Derrida everything begins with a summons: with a "come". His "come" is the signal which calls for sending, the first email which calls for the correspondence in which we are already involved, correspondence with an other which is always there. To put an end to this correspondence is synonymous with death, and this is precisely what the militant copyright fundamentalists want to impose on the Internet in order to domesticate it and use it as a tool for selling their own bric-a-brac. But as Derrida said: "I inherit something which I must pass on: this might sound shocking, but there is no proprietary right to inheritance." It is this inheritance that belongs to no one and influences all of us; it is this common heritage on which the new is built which is the focus of the attacks on free culture.


Beatriz Busaniche
is a lecturer for communication studies at the University of Buenos Aires. For the Via Libre Organisation, she promotes debates on free software, access to information and other issues related to the social impact of new technologies.

Horacio Potel is a philosopher and a lecturer at Lanus University in Argentina. In 2009 he rose to international fame when he was taken to court for having spent 10 years running Internet websites featuring Spanish translations of Derrida, Heidegger and Nieztsche.

The interview was translated from the Spanish by Silke Helfrich and published under the Creative Commons Licence BY-NC-SA on 1 October, 2010 by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in the reader "Argentina Copyleft! New rules for the digital age? The view from Argentina".

Translation from the German: lp

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