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Online Censorship: Uncensored
Thursday, January 19, 2012

Yesterday morning I posted a column called ďAn Article in Protest of Internet Censorship.Ē It took about three seconds for the average reader to realize the article was blank, and about seven more seconds of scrolling up and down on the page to realize they werenít imagining it. The blankness of this column, of course, was no accident. It was the point. That was my protest.

I owe my life to the Internet. Well, maybe thatís dramatic. But inasmuch as writing is the number one thing I like to do in life, the Internet, as much as anything else, is responsible for the fact that Iím able to do it. Iíve been writing online in various forms since 1996. Thatís sixteen years. Iím 33-years-old. Iíve been writing online half my life. Iíve been fortunate enough to see my stuff published on sites as far from home as Russia and Germany. Iíve spoken with people all over the world, on every single continent, except Antarctica.

People whoíve been following me long enough know that one of the first forms of writing I did was on boxing. Back in the day, that was the main thing I wrote about—not the political stuff that I eventually became known for, and not the fiction I would rather be known for. In the mid-to-late Ď90s, when chatrooms were big (remember chatrooms?), I spent a good amount of time in the ESPN.com boxing chatroom talking about my favorite sport. (This sounds pathetic, but you have to remember, in the mid-90s, before the MMA explosion, fellow boxing fans were hard to find in real life.) We formed a little community in that chatroom, and I, being the entrepreneurial spirit that I was, chose to design a website where regulars of those chats could post their articles on boxing. At the time, it seemed fitting to include an ESPN logo at the top of that website.

Boxing being the relatively small deal that it was, ESPN never found us, and their logo was eventually replaced by one that was made specifically for the site. But had they found us, even back then, we—and especially me—could have been in a boatload of trouble. It was right around that time that corporate media entities began sending out their lawyers to shut down unofficial fan sites on the grounds of copyright infringement (use of logos, fan fiction, things like that). At the outset, this probably sounds reasonable to people. If a company owns a brand, theyíre within their rights to want to control it. Well, maybe in a legal sense they are, but itís contrary to the processes of human culture, and itís also counterproductive.

Human beings have always shared stories. Human language itself, at least in part, is an outgrowth of this desire. Long before people wrote things down, tales were passed from person to person, generation to generation, and ultimately culture to culture. The story of Noahís flood, for example, is not unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition; at least 200 cultures around the world, and possibly as many as 500 cultures, share or have shared a similar legend (some with amazingly similar details). Robin Hood, King Arthur, the stories of Homer—the list goes on of great human stories transcending the ages and their original storytellers because the audience made them their own.

Today, many stories, and brands for that matter, are created or distributed through large, corporate entities. That may sound soulless, and sometimes it is, but that in no way stems the deep human impulse to deconstruct art, derive meaning from it, and apply it to your life. When we discuss Internet censorship, we need to discuss this. We need to discuss the realities of human culture, because those realities are at odds with the corporate behemoths who seek to create and control that culture. They donít want us creating online shrines to our favorite shows, movies, songs, whatever. They donít want us writing fan fiction, if we feel so inclined, and they certainly donít want us using copyrighted media as we create media of our own on sites like YouTube. What they want, in no uncertain terms, is to control what theyíve created, because they believe—make that wrongly believe—that this is the best way to make money from it. At the end of the day, they are not concerned with art. They are concerned with the commodity of art. They are concerned with money.

As an artist myself (and I use that term loosely, but for the sake of discussion, I think itís fitting), I am wholly unconcerned with the prospect of people appropriating my work for their own purposes, because that only helps me. Piracy is a problem; donít get me wrong. If Iím selling something, Iíd obviously rather see people pay for it than steal it. But I also know that the best way to make money from what Iím doing is to let people take ownership of it.

A few years ago, for instance, someone I never met, and never spoke to, created a website literally for the purposes of commenting on my articles. This was all the site was. Just a weekly commentary on my weekly commentaries, because he so enjoyed reading them. I donít know whatever happened to that guy, but just imagine what would have happened if I had sent him a letter telling him to shut the site down. First of all, I would have lost a fan. Second of all, I may have lost many fans, because who knows how many people found my site by first finding his? Finally, who knows what that guy was capable of? Maybe he was going to be the greatest writer who ever lived, and I was just his starting point. If Marvel Comics were to go around suing any fifth grader who traces a drawing of Spider-Man (not something thatís ever happened, to my knowledge), they could easily deprive themselves of one of the worldís next great comic book artists.

Thereís an impulse to say that art and money cannot mix. I donít believe thatís true. I believe art can be created for artís sake, while still having an eye on making a profit from it. Like with anything in life, you need to find the balance. And that means not supporting any legislation which further entrenches us in a corporate-owned culture at the expense of a user-shared one. This may not be the focus of SOPA and PIPA, the legislation which inspired yesterdayís Wikipedia blackout, as well as this article. But itís all a part of the larger struggle for freedom within our culture—especially the online part of it.

The neat thing about the Internet is that itís allowed guys like me, writers like me, to make a name for themselves in a corporate-controlled world where breaking in, even when you have talent, even when you have something interesting to say, is difficult. The Internet has given me the opportunity to promote myself and my writing in ways that I might have otherwise struggled to do, because the news and publishing industries were too busy creating a professional wrestling-like atmosphere in politics and promoting Snooki as a New York Times best-selling author. I may not owe my life to the Internet, but I owe at least a portion—a large portion—of my career to it. If not for the relative freedom of the online environment, my whole writing career could easily be as blank as yesterdayís article.

Jonathan David Morris is the author of Versus Nurture. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/readjdm.

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