A few days ago, Sonia Katyal, a lawyer at Fordham emailed me the abstract and link to her paper "Semiotic Disobedience" asking me to feel free to distribute at will... so here it is [link and abstract below]. I started reading it this morning. Sonia's assertion that " propertization offers a subsidy to particular types of expression over others" is particularly interesting to me, due to my scandalous activity of appropriating images from mass media and screwing them around to make paintings.
Fordham University School of Law
Washington University Law Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, 2006
Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1015500
Abstract: [download paper ]
Nearly twenty years ago, a prominent media studies professor, John Fiske, coined the term "semiotic democracy" to describe a world where audiences freely and widely engage in the use of cultural symbols in response to the forces of media. Although Fiske originally referenced the audience's power in viewing and interpreting television narratives, today, his vision of semiotic democracy has become perhaps the single most important ideal cited by scholars who imagine a utopian relationship between law, technology, and democratic culture.
In this Article, I seek to introduce another framework to supplement Fiske's important metaphor: the phenomenon of "semiotic disobedience." Three contemporary cultural moments in the world - one corporate, one academic, and one artistic - call for a new understanding of the limitations and possibilities of semiotic democracy and underline the need for a supplementary framework.
As public spaces have become converted into vehicles for corporate advertising - ads painted onto sidewalks and into buildings, schools, and other public spaces - product placement has soared to new heights of power and subtlety. And throughout, the law has generously offered near-sovereign protection to such symbolism through the ever-expanding vehicle of intellectual property protection. Equations between real property and intellectual property are ubiquitous. Underlying these themes is a powerful linkage between intellectual and tangible property: as one expands, so does the other.
Yet at the same time, there is another facet that is often left out of the picture, involving the increasing response of artists who have chosen to expand their activities past the boundaries of cultural dissent and into the boundaries of asserted illegality. For every movement toward enclosure that the law facilitates, there is an opposite, underappreciated movement toward liberation from control - a moment where social activism exposes the need for alternative political economies of information. And yet the difference between these marketplaces of speech - one protected, one prohibited - both captures and transcends the foundational differences between democracy and disobedience itself.
Just as previous discussions of civil disobedience focused on the need to challenge existing laws by using certain types of public and private property for expressive freedoms, today's generation seeks to alter existing intellectual property by interrupting, appropriating, and then replacing the passage of information from creator to consumer. This Article suggests that the phenomenon of semiotic disobedience offers a radically different vantage point than Fiske's original vision, one that underlines the importance of distributive justice in intellectual property. Thus, instead of interrogating the limits of First Amendment freedoms, as many scholars have already done, I argue that a study of semiotic disobedience reveals an even greater need to study both the core boundaries between types of properties - intellectual, real, personal - and how propertization offers a subsidy to particular types of expression over others.
This paper won an honorable mention in the annual AALS Scholarly Papers competition, and was profiled in the New York Times Magazine.
more on this paper via sinSign[dot]com, lowbrow semiotics:
In an article to be published this fall  in the Washington University Law Review, Sonia Katyal, a Fordham University law professor, coins the already-popular term "semiotic disobedience" (a Google search today yielded 400 mentions), which can be considered (as stated on Katyal's paper) a modernization of John Fiske's "Semiotic Democracy."
The central argument is not new but is presented in a way that enlightens and greatly contributes with the conversation surrounding intellectual property in the public space, collective intelligence, and the role of artists as the quintessential "attention economists" (extensively discussed by Richard A. Lanham in The Economics of Attention). Talking about finding innovation at the intersection of disciplines…
In Katyal's words, "the objective of semiotic disobedience is to correct the marketplace of speech by occupying and transforming the semiotic 'codes' within advertising." She goes on to explain the different degrees of disobedience, which range from vandalism to reclaiming public space.
In this context, I find the work of an unknown artist that operates in the Union Sq subway station (New York City) extremely interesting [read on...]