Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | November 28, 2010

You Don’t KNOW Me (Another Blog Challenge)

All right, hugemistakers. We’re all (mostly) in different fields. Like, way different fields.

My reaction when people ask if I plan to teach history when I graduate. Although sometimes I say, "Maybe."

So imagine you have five minutes to address a room full of people who are intelligent and interested but know nothing, or next to nothing, about the work you choose to do every day.

What’s the one thing you want these people to understand about your work?

Use your five minutes to correct misconceptions you suspect most people harbor, or to tell people something you know they don’t know. Or get on your high horse and rant. (HISTORIANS DO MORE THAN TEACH! HULK ANGRY! HULK SMASH!)





Posted by: pittsburghtrademarklawyer | November 22, 2010

Girl Talk and Copyright Law: Is “Illegal Art” Really Illegal?

OK, so as the resident lawyer of this blog (and the lone Pittsburgher, for that matter), I suppose it’s incumbent on me to answer the question: What’s up with Girl Talk? Why hasn’t dude been sued yet?

I’ll try to spare you tedious legal analysis.  Here goes.

As you may have heard by now, Pittsburgh-based artist (let’s not call him a DJ), recently released another album.  The new album, “All Day” was released online for free download on his label, Illegal Art’s website.

Girl Talk is unlike most musical artists.  Rather than creating music using instruments/vocals/digital effects like most artists, Girl Talk (whose real name is Gregg Gillis) creates music almost entirely from snippets of other artists’ music.  He has gained popularity for his unique ability to take seemingly disparate pieces of music (say, Notorious B.I.G. and Elton John, for example) and combining them in way that’s clever, interesting, listenable, and–you had to see this coming– danceable.

You don’t have to be a copyright lawyer to realize that Gillis’s project might raise some legal concerns.  Each album contains samples from hundreds of copyrighted songs.  For instance, “All Day” clocks in at 372. (It’s actually pretty fun to listen to a Girl Talk album and then compare notes with the Wikipedia entry for that album.  Sort of like “Name That Tune”: Hipster Edition.)

In any event, the more albums Girl Talk puts out, the longer the list of potential plaintiffs becomes.  So the question has to be raised: why hasn’t anyone sued him yet?

Each time Gillis uses another artist’s song without their permission, that use would constitute copyright infringement.   If Gillis were sued for infringement, he would most likely argue that his use of their work constitutes a “fair use” and is thus not infringing.   In Gillis’s case, the fair use question would come down to whether his use was considered “transformative.”  Intelligent minds are in disagreement as to whether or not Gillis would prevail in making a fair use defense.  And this debate has been going on for a while now: during law school, I advised another member of my journal on his student note, which dealt with this question.

However, maybe the real reason why Girl Talk hasn’t yet been sued depends less on the legal strength of his defense and more on the PR considerations involved (namely, that he’d have legal experts and public support at his side right from the start.  As Joe Mullin at points out:

So why hasn’t Gillis been hauled in front of a judge by the music industry? Probably because he’s the most unappealing defendant imaginable. Gillis would be a ready-made hero for copyright reformers; if he were sued, he’d have some of the best copyright lawyers in the country knocking on his door asking to take his case for free.

At the Electronic Frontier Foundation, probably the most well-funded public interest group working in the copyright space, lawyers have made it clear for years that they’re positively eager to litigate a case over music sampling, which they believe is a clear-cut case of fair use.

Then there’s the PR issue. Gillis is a popular artist who was even praised on the floor of Congress by his local representative, Pittsburgh Democrat Mike Doyle, who called Gillis a “local guy done good;” Doyle also suggested that mash-ups might be a “transformative new art that expands the consumers experience.”

For now, though, it seems as though Girl Talk can breathe easy and keep doing what he does best.  Enjoy!

Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | November 21, 2010

Oddities of Pulp Fiction History

Robert Silverberg is a literary machine: having started to write science fiction stories in the mid-fifties, he apparently never stopped. Astute fans have compiled complete lists of his work (Wikipedia is one such easy source), but a romp through the original magazines won’t turn up half the work Silverberg produced.

This is the fault of the pseudonym.

Amazing Stories, November 1957

Science fiction authors used (and some still use) pen names for lots of reasons. Alice Bradley Sheldon concealed her gender behind the whimsical name James Tiptree, Jr., in part to forestall the obstacles of writing as a woman in an industry dominated by men. Often science fiction magazine editors would run multiple stories by the same author in a single issue, but credit some of those stories to alter egos to bolster the magazine’s reputation for printing a variety of authors’ work—it made the magazines look better, more rounded. In these cases, magazines would lay claim to “house names,” and would run stories by many different authors under those names. Ivar Jorgensen is one awesome example—it was a house name owned by Ziff-Davis, the house that published Amazing Stories from 1938 to 1965.

Silverberg’s most prolific pseudonym was Calvin M. Knox.* Here’s how the story goes: Judith Merril, herself a prominent sf author actually named Judith Josephine Grossman, warned Silverberg that he’d have a hard time selling sf stories with a Jewish name. Another author, Robert Lowndes, helped Silverberg come up with a decidedly non-Jewish name. So Silverberg adopted it and became, in some places and times, the uber-Protestant Calvin M. Knox.

…and all of this, hidden in a pseudonym.


* For a fuller retelling of this story, see Ashley, Mike. Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazine from 1950 to 1970 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press), 2005, 124.

Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | November 15, 2010

Stop what you’re doing and write a novel. Right now!

Now, a plug for NaNoWriMo!

National Novel Writing Month is a spur for those of us whose inner editors are bullies. The idea is to write, write with abandon, and leave the editing for later, or for never. Words on the page! Forward motion! Type now, read later! 

The goal is 50,000 words in 30 days, spanning the month of November. You can share your work with other people, or not. You can try to sell your novel at the end of the period, or not. The only thing that matters for NaNoWriMo is the process.

Trying to write a 50,000 word novel in a month (I’ve made two ~failed~ attempts; my total word count is just shy of 28,000 words) has been rewarding for me professionally as well as personally. The historian Heather Cox Richardson gave me some good advice a few semesters ago. I’d complained of being hung up on a paper I was writing on the history of American science fiction. Every question I asked led to other questions; I couldn’t close the tap.

“You have a deadline,” she told me. “Write it to the best of your ability, then turn it in and get it out of your life.”

Solid counsel.


Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | November 12, 2010

Memory is an endangered species

Great piece in The Root today on Baby Boom-generation African Americans’ memories of the Civil Rights era. A terrible thing happens when people die: they take their memories with them. Their memories become inaccessible, forever. And the last person to remember something really big, really important, really traumatic…when that person dies, something else happens. Our understanding of that event changes, too.

This is especially important when it comes to social groups who have historically lacked access to what becomes the documentary record. In twentieth-century American history, this generally means ethnic minorities and the poor. An American who was 12 years old in 1954, the year the United States’ highest court officially repudiated “separate but equal,” is 68 years old now. The average life expectancy in this country (genders averaged) is 78. That gives us a decade, maybe less, to ask this hypothetical person what his life was like. After that, it’s just historians picking at scraps.

The good news is, technology has made amateur oral history a tangible reality. If you have a smart phone, you can conduct an oral history. StoryCorps has an excellent DIY guide to recording someone’s story, and there are plenty of other resources online.


Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | November 10, 2010

Some things are too good not to share.

One of my ongoing projects is a statistical analysis of themes in American science fiction magazines between the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Kennedy’s assassination. At the moment, this means I’m plowing through hundreds of pulpy mags from the early- and mid-fifties. Lots are unremarkable, in terms of stories and art.

But some are PURE WIN.

Amazing Stories, December 1955

The cool backdrop to this is that this type of cover art represented one side of a fierce debate among science fiction publishers and readers about the genre. Some magazine editors saw their genre as noble, and potentially as sophisticated as any other kind of fiction. Science fiction, for them, was more than just “kids’ stuff.” Others believed, maybe rightly, that nothing moved units like laser blasts, aliens, and a dose of T&A.

The whole debate–highbrow literature or Saturday morning escapism?–ended up being moot. By the mid-fifties, after science fiction moved to the paperback format, it found readers enough to be both things. Works for me.


Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | November 9, 2010

Insert history lesson here

Adam Serwer over at The American Prospect is only the most recent commentator to bring up Harry Truman in the ongoing debate over Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Rarely are parallels so obvious in the history of policy making.

But one important factor seems missing from every account of this parallel I’ve read so far: the personalities of the policy makers in play. Truman moved to desegregate the armed forces by executive order because he thought it was the right thing to do, it’s true. This is well documented and the man, deeply flawed in other ways, deserves credit for his moral stature on this point.

But here’s the crucial back story. The historical record (according to my own research at the National Archives between 2004 and 2006) suggests that Truman felt desegregating the military was right not just out of some devotion to sky-high ideals. In fact, he was motivated much more strongly by anecdotes of racist violence visited on returning black servicemen after World War II. Walter White, then head of the NAACP, discusses this in his memoir. Truman’s sense of propriety was well-developed, and racist violence offended him, even wounded him, more deeply than any careful consideration of the wrongs of the military’s policy of segregation.

Add to this the fact that Truman was not one to deliberate on the subtleties of an issue. Case in point: as VP in 1945 he attended the Kansas City funeral of the corrupt machine politician Boss Pendergast, to the collected gasps of Washington commentators, because Pendergast had been his friend in the past. And, finally, add the fact that in 1948, a feisty Truman, facing the staunchly obstructionist 80th Congress, felt he had nothing to lose by ram-rodding desegregation into law.

Now, shake, strain, and pour. Boom goes the dynamite: Executive Order 9981.

Where does this leave us? The DADT equation is more complicated because, as I understand it, an executive order wouldn’t fix the problem. Congress has to be involved. But if the policy is repealed in the next two (or six!) years, it will be in part because the president puts his weight behind the repeal effort. But Obama is not Truman. In fact, Obama seems much more like Truman’s predecessor, the studied, contemplative, and infinitely political FDR.

I hope this is one case where personalities, in the end, don’t matter after all.


Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | November 7, 2010

Where the crazy comes from

Julian Sanchez (one of my favorite bloggers) tags the French term ressentiment as a useful way to understand 21st C American conservatism, or at least the monster masquerading as such. The word means:

“…a sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one’s frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the “cause” generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.”

I’m currently reading a bunch of books on 20th C American history, mostly cultural histories and histories of foreign policy, for my spring comprehensive exams. On those exams I’ll be trying to assess the impact of American exceptionalism on policies both foreign and domestic since the Victorian era. Seems like there’s a link between these two ideas, or that–at the very least–they reinforce one another.

I’ll be posting more and more about my comps reading as the exams get closer…you guys are going to LOVE it.


Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | November 5, 2010

Things could have been very different…

One thing I try to convey to the sections I teach as a TA is the notion of historical contingency. History has a weight to it, and when we learn it as children and young adults it can acquire an inertia that feels like determinism: things are this way because they couldn’t have been any other way.

Every once in a while, a document or a discussion is especially good at shaking this determinism up.

Today, courtesy of the National Archives (and h/t to Letters of Note), I give you a pre-written statement Nixon was to read if Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became stranded on the Moon and had to be left there to die in the “deepest of the deep.”


Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | November 3, 2010

File Under: About Damn Time

What’s this? A professional, credentialed academic historian engaging a contemporary political issue from a historical perspective?


Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History is out in print and e-form, and I’m stoked.

I’m excited because the book calls out the dangerously anti-historical and anti-intellectual veins running through the now-ubiquitous Tea Party movement.

But I’m also excited because this book represents a small reversal of a terrible trend that began in the 1960s, when professionally trained historians walked en masse away from writing books for popular audiences, and instead started writing esoteric books pretty much only for each other. This has as much to do with the glut of humanities PhDs all vying for tenure-track positions as with any conscious failing of historians to be, as Socrates urged, the gadflies of a free and enlightened society. But I’m going to lay most of the blame on the historical profession…because who else is going to fix this problem but us?


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