The Anarchist in the Library is Vaidhyanathan’s second book on copyright and intellectual property (IP) after his 2003 Copyrights and Copywrongs. Where the earlier book was a straightforward and lively history of this area of law and culture, in The Anarchist in the Library Vaidhyanathan tries to put a socio-philosophical spin on the same material to achieve an apocalyptic excitement. For a number of reasons, it doesn’t work.
Vaidhyanathan tries to cram all the complex issues surrounding copyright and IP, which include those of music downloading and sampling, software and media “piracy,” print publishing, control of libraries (as in the Patriot Act), control of computer networks as well as the little publicized area of IP in science (genomics, pharmaceuticals, and so on), inside two buckets: the totalitarian “controllers” and the free-for-all “anarchists.” The alleged “clash” between the two buckets, Vaidhyanathan claims, is “crashing the system” and “hacking the real world.” The problem is, those two categories don’t reflect reality. The categories of people he’s describing—totalitarians and anarchists—are mere caricatures of copyright combatants. Yes, many CEOs and Republicrats (since the two parties are largely indistinguishable on this topic) would like to tighten the screws and enclose the creative commons by extending copyright for longer and longer periods of time, restricting freedom of data movement and controlling media copying and (re)distribution. And yes, a few of the “hackers” of the creative commons want to completely defy all law and make everything available for détournment all the time. There are, however, large masses of people—consumers, especially, but politicians and business people as well—who are more or less in the middle and who do and will exert authority and change on the situation. Vaidhyanathan doesn’t ignore this middle ground but he only mentions it in passing, as it isn’t convenient to his hyperbolic thesis of apocalypse.
There’s another, deeper, multifaceted problem with The Anarchist in the Library, though, and that is the question of its accuracy. In the first place, the book is redolent with typographical errors, including in quoted material and often to the extent that the errors obfuscate the meaning and intention of both Vaidhyanathan and his quoted sources. Book editing is, admittedly, at a nadir and copyeditors have joined the other unwanted homeless people of America, having been discarded by the industry in favor of vast hordes of marketing types. Nevertheless, the edition of The Anarchist in the Library under review here is technically the second (the paperback reprint) and Vaidhyanathan could have put his foot down and insisted that the most egregious of the errors be corrected.
But maybe Vaidhyanathan wasn’t paying attention. The second source of worry regarding the accuracy of this book is solely the responsibility of the author. For example, Vaidhyanathan offers Diogenes of Sinope, known as the Cynic or the Dog, as an archetypal example of an “anarchist.” Vaidhyanathan writes: “Diogenes of Sinope… was infamous. Wearing only a shabby robe, he wandered the streets of Athens and then Sinope after he was expelled for defacing the Athenian currency.” This is exactly backwards, and the source cited by Vaidhyanathan for this information (a well-respected scholarly anthology edited by Branham and Goulet-Caze) gets it exactly right. Diogenes was born and raised in Sinope; his father was the minter of that Black Sea port. When the father (most likely) got in trouble for “defacing the currency,” Diogenes the son scrammed and wound up in Athens. Diogenes was about forty when he got to Athens, and it was there that he became the second-most famous man in the world after Alexander the Great, Diogenes’ younger contemporary. Vaidhyanathan’s source gets this right because, in fact, there is only one ancient source for the biography of Diogenes of Sinope and that is another Diogenes, this time Laertes, who lived some 500 years after the Cynic. So it’s remarkable that Vaidhyanathan would get this famous story so very wrong, and one has to wonder what else he has mangled.
Then there’s the matter of his use of anarchism as one of the poles of his apocalyptic thesis. Vaidhyanathan offers a capsule history of anarchism which compresses the highly divisive story of its development into a smooth space convenient to his purposes. Anybody who has studied anarchism, however, realizes that you get as many versions and as many historical emphases as you have anarchists in a room discussing the matter. That’d be fine if Vaidhyanathan acknowledged his oversimplification, but he doesn’t.
In short, I don’t trust Vaidhyanathan’s book. It’s written in a lively and entertaining style but the errors are so widespread as to offset any value it might have as a source of information. Vaidhyanathan’s naïf-like appropriation of anarchism is romantic, at best. While I give him credit for recognizing that “moral panics” (as in the case of record companies arguing they’ll be destroyed by illegal downloading) are created in order to manipulate public acceptance of restrictive copyright and IP law, I think he misses a key historical point: capitalism has always thrived on cultural crisis. This is not news and it is not going to “crash the system.”