Metaphors and moral panics

Last night US copyright star William Patry delivered this year's Stephen Stewart Memorial Lecture on the subject of “Metaphors and Moral Panics in Copyright”. This event, which is organised annually by the Intellectual Property Institute, was hosted by London-based law firm Slaughter and May at its rather lovely Bunhill Row offices, near London's iconic Barbican Centre. As the advertisement for the lecture information explained,

"Intellectual property is intangible and abstract; not surprisingly, so are key concepts within the field, such as the idea-expression dichotomy. Early rationales for copyright in the UK to encourage learning, and in the US to promote the progress of science, are also abstract. Cognitive linguists propose that metaphors are essential to understand such abstractions. Under this approach, metaphors are not affective or rhetorical devices, but rather cognitive vehicles by which we directly understand one conceptual domain in terms of another.

Those advocating grants of robust copyright employ a number of metaphors to achieve their desired result, usually in conjunction with what British sociologists in the 1960s and 1970s began calling "moral panics," seen in Jack Valenti's testimony that "the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." Those who oppose copyright have their own sets of moral panics and metaphors, such as "information wants to be free." The lecture will review how metaphors and moral panics have been used to obfuscate rather than enlighten".
Highlighting the power of metaphor, Bill drew on examples of the use of metaphor both as a means of articulating an idea and as a means of selling it. The late copyright industry lobbyist Jack Valenti was a particularly successful exponent of this technique, which he employed as a means of obtaining the support and cooperation of his small but powerful audience: the American legislature. The metaphors we use in expressing our understanding of IP issues are powerful and emotive; the notion of creation as birth has spawned many metaphors (the notion of the brainchild; "products of a fertile imagination"), as have agricultural ones ("fruit of one's labour"; "reaping where one has not sown").

Bill (left) cited two problems relating to the use of metaphor in IP terms. First there is a danger that the metaphor will cease to be a means of liberating thought and will become instead a means of enslaving it; this occurs when, having adopted a metaphor in the first place, people are unable to think beyond it. Another is when the generation of a moral panic switches attention from the nature of the real-world issues to be resolved and instead towards the subject of the rhetorical imagery itself.

Controversially, the speaker accused the description of copyright as "property" rather than recognising it as what it was, a set of rules that regulated social relationships", as a dangerous obfuscation that made copyright law reform difficult and meaningful copyright law reform almost impossible. This was the trigger for some of the post-lecture questions and even more of the discussions that took place during the subsequent reception.

The culmination of the event was the auction, conducted by auctioneer for the night Mr Justice Floyd, of Shaun the Sheep (above, right) to raise funds for the Intellectual Property Institute. IPKat team blogger secured Shaun -- whose box was autographed by Bill -- for the knockdown price of £100. The IPKat is however concerned that Shaun is struggling to compete with the lookalike Serta sheep (right), drawn to his attention by his keen-eyed friend Miri Frankel. Is there an issue of infringement here, the Kat wonders? I think we should be told.
Metaphors and moral panics Metaphors and moral panics Reviewed by Jeremy on Wednesday, November 14, 2007 Rating: 5


  1. The similarity isn't surprising -

    "The sheep in the Counting Sheep commercials were filmed by the Bristol-based Aardman Animations, the same firm used by British animator Nick Park who created the popular stop-action animation characters Wallace and Gromit in the early 1990s and the prison escape spoof film Chicken Run.(2000)."

  2. Not a bad night at all, and I must thank Jeremy for his instructive pointers over on my blog, however one more question did stand out in my mind after the talk was over - does Google's liberal attitude towards IP rights extend to the algorithms they use in their search engines? I seem to remember a metaphor involving a pot and a kettle, but we all know how dangerous these metaphor things can be!


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