Law in the Internet Society
The Author is Dead, Long live the Reader

Old habits die hard. France always had a hard time getting rid of monarchy and despite what French people love to think, ruins from this ancient system are to be seen in almost every aspect of society. One illustration of this situation is the particularly visible role played by artists in general and authors in particular within French society. As a matter of fact, they are a caste and, therefore, enjoy undeniable privileges. The whole philosophy underlying the copyright system, a notion precisely called in French droit d’auteur, pertinently demonstrates that in France the focus is on the author and his person and not on the work itself, unlike what is implied by the effective common law copyright system. Authors are recognized moral rights on their work, distinct from any economic rights tied to copyrights. However, while being the keystone of this system, authors are at the same time its first victims. The protection this system offers them is double-edged. It also conditions their existence and can therefore oppress them. And as pointed out by George Orwell, people who are the most oppressed by an organization are often its first defenders, which leads to absurd and contradictory situations. The action group Le droit du Serf created in 2000 shows to what illogical extremes the protection of droit d’auteur can result in. Last October, This action group presented a petition to the Assemblée Nationale (the lower house of the French bicameral Parliament) against the introduction of a bill aiming to create a national digital file gathering all the French literary production of the 20th century no longer commercially exploited. The exploitation of the file would be managed by an independent company, which will then redistribute the collected sums between all authors. Surprisingly, this project has encountered vehement protests and caused a general outcry within the literary world. Indeed, as emphasized in their petition, the authors and the beneficiairies concerned by this proposal see in this potential future law an automatic confiscation of the authors’ property and consider therefore that the consequences of this measure will deeply call into question the very foundations of the French copyright ideology. Their argument consists in saying that, unlike traditional edition contracts where the consent of the author to the commercial exploitation of his work is required, this new legislation will skip this phase of the process. Allegedly, only the author or his beneficiairies has the power and the legitimacy to decide about the rerun of his work and allowing such a bypass of consent to happen quite simply equals a “general and official piracy of the literary work of the 20th century”. The stupidity of this reasoning is particularly striking: authors should be glad to be offered a way to get round the imperialism of editors who often pay more attention to the commercial potential of a work than to its artistic content. They should enjoy the possibility of having their work, arbitrarily declared not available by greedy editors, published on a big electronic platform and consulted by a large range of people. It seems that the signatories of this petition have not understood anything: they complain about the non-application of processes characteristic of their own submission to a system that does not serve their interests. What is the point of saying they should first get to sign a contract before getting edited, when their initial signatures brought them nothing since it has been decided without their consent not to publish their work anymore? This goes beyond absurdity and confines to foolishness.

The Death of the Author. In this context, let’s take a look at a rather unusual essay on authors and the role they should play: the article The Death of the Author/La mort de l’auteur by Roland Barthes. In many regards, this study sets the cat among the pigeons and can be used to question the postulates on which the French copyright system is based. This essay is not very well known in France. Indeed it was originally published in 1967 in the American journal Aspen an only appeared in its French version in 1968 in the journal Manteia. In this piece of work, Barthes stretches out the idea that we should not try to explain texts by looking at their authors, but rather by looking at the language of the text and how it speaks to us. Thus, according to him, the quest for a so-called message left by the author is vain and can only be a supposition on the part of the reader, since for him it is the language that creates meaning, not the author. The message conveyed by Barthes that one should resist the totalitarism of the message from an over-controlling “Author God”, is of relevance for us because it transcends the field of semantic and can actually be applied to area of copyright. The conclusion of Barthes that the only way to liberate the reader is to get rid of the author, “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author”, has a resonance in the French world of copyright. Indeed, it also means resisting the ideology of an all-powerful author who decides when and by whom his work is to be read. It suggests that once the author goes public, his work is not his exclusive property anymore, but belongs to the public, who by reading, watching, commenting, mentioning it gives it a life of its own. Granting too much importance to the author in general is dangerous; history gives us many great examples illustrating the fact that artists are often the worst judges of their own work. Indeed, what about Kafka ordering his friend and literary executor Max Brod to destroy his entire work after his death? Isn’it the perfect example that artists, for their own sake, should not be listen to at all times and should not be given a too controlling place in the administration of their own work?


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Attachments Attachments

  Attachment Action Size Date Who Comment
pdf death_authorbarthes.pdf props, move 77.1 K 19 Mar 2012 - 15:56 AliceAudreyRiviere Here the English version of "The Death of the Author".
r4 - 04 Sep 2012 - 22:02:22 - IanSullivan
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