BRAND NAME BULLIES: The Quest to Own and Control Culture by David Bollier is a good, if overheated look that I found informative even though I’m no stranger to the issues (the now-defunct Consumerist blog was really good with these topics). Bollier’s topic is how the reach of trademark and copyright law has expanded massively in recent decades, creating massive restrictions on the public domain and the rights of non-copyright holders. And that’s not even considering the bullies of the title — firms with the legal power to force us regular people to either back off or lawyer up, even when they have no real claim (as Consumerist has pointed out in some cases, it’s often easier to settle than endure the time and money it would take to win). The book covers the tricky issue of fair use in parody (which may come down to whether the judge thinks something is funny), a designer of mobiles who claims a copyright on the form (so some museums refuse to carry other mobiles in return for displaying his), the possibility of plagiarizing something unconsciously (which some judges have used to give plaintiffs a win without any real evidence of plagiarism) and the degree to which the DMCA shrinks the digital commons. I do think Bollier stretches in a couple of spots, though: Disney threatening to sue over an Oscar skit with “their” Snow White dancing with Rob Lowe isn’t the same as claiming any use of Snow White infringes on their copyrights (though who knows what the future holds?). And I’m sorry, but “it was too expensive” or “they didn’t put it out fast enough and I really wanted it” are not good justifications for going to pirated copies.
MISQUOTING JESUS: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart Ehrman looks at the challenges of figuring what the Bible “really” says. Theoretically, the earliest possible texts should be the authoritative ones, but even they don’t always agree; as Ehrman shows, some scribes made bad copies, some “fixed” what they thought were problems and others deliberately rewrote the text to score points against rival sects, Jews or Gnostics. While most of the textual-criticism issues are familiar to me, it’s been long enough since I read up on them that I found this very interesting.