Sunday, June 22, 2014

Capitalism and Intellectual Property Rights

Pharmaceuticals and publishing are the two most striking areas of failure in the capitalist system which, for the most part, has encouraged the creation of new things and improvements on the old, and has brought those things to a competitive market at prices that favor the sale of quantity – in other words, cheaply so the quality of life can be good even for the poor. 

Wal-Mart may not have the most glowing record as an employer but its ability to make good food and clothing available at very low prices is evident.

But the protections of that broad field of production defined as intellectual property has become highly problematic in an age when that very sort of property is disseminated by the internet which has a strong bias in favor of pricelessness – in both meanings of the word.

I’ve written before about the book publishing industry – in particular the major trade publishers in the United States, especially those massive conglomerates that center upon Random House and Viking/Penguin (now reduced, thanks to merger, to just Random House.) 

Instead of cooperating with Amazon, lowering prices and going for quantity sales, they fought Amazon, determined to keep control of their pricing and to keep their prices high. 

The discount model of retailing has long shown that low prices and quantity sales can result in higher overall profits, but the publishers, grasping after an old fashioned dignity, could not see the value of that business model (although their predecessors in management certainly did in coming forth with good quality paperbacks very cheaply – but now even the paperbacks are expensive.) 

These publishers missed entirely the advantages of the e-book which costs six cents to maintain and send out -- with Amazon as distributor (in place of warehousing, shipping and 40% to the bookstore) taking just 30% of the price above the six cent cost.

Of course those people in the arts and sciences who write, who do research and devise new things, must be paid; they must be recompensed and rewarded for their time. 

But it’s not the creators who are gaining the outrageous profits, it’s the publishers, the corporations, and specifically the executives of those corporations, for heaven knows the stock holders and those corporate workers who are not at the higher levels of management aren’t enjoying big pay-outs.

Pharmaceutical firms rank as the worst, charging prices that only the most cynical corporate policies could invent. 

It's unconscionable that firms that create and control medications that are required to cure deadly diseases should fix their prices so high that only the very rich can afford them. 

One might see in this a managerial class arrogance that effectively is committing a selective genocide of the poor and those who are only moderately well off. 

But another area of nearly equally unconscionable pricing has come to my attention. That of the publishing of scientific research – articles at the cutting edge of research across all fields. Articles necessary for that very advancement in which capitalism so prides itself.

Robert Darnton, in his article “A World Digital Library Is Coming True!” in The New York Review of Books (May 22, 2014), despite his encouraging title, informs us of the following: “The average price of a year’s subscription to a chemistry journal is now $4,040. In 1970 it was $33. 

A subscription to the Journal of Comparative Neurology cost $30,860 in 2012 – the equivalent of six hundred monographs. 

Three giant publishers – Reed Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell and Springer – publish 42% of all academic articles. In 2013 Elsevier turned a 39% profit on an income of 2.1 billion pounds from its science, technology and medical journals.”

(I highly recommend that anyone interested in serious discussions of what’s happening in the world subscribe to The New York Review of Books – which is in no way limited to just reviewing books but takes a sweeping and in-depth view of what is important to all of us.)

These outrageous publishers of scientific papers are dependent upon scientists, researchers, universities for their journals’ content. Why would anyone, knowing their work is going to be so limited in distribution – and so abused for the benefit of corporate management – chose to publish with them? 

Prestige is a significant factor. These publishers, back in the days when they had decent corporate policies, became the grantors of academic imprimatur – if it was published by them it was to be taken seriously. 

But now one must consider that what is published by them perhaps need not be taken seriously – for the authors must know that few in their fields can afford to see what they’ve written.

The United States Congress has attempted to answer this problem, repeatedly putting forward legislation that would require that research paid for by government grants and subsidies be made available free of charge – after all the research has already been funded by the tax payers. 

But the high prices publishers charge mean they have plenty of funding for lobbying to keep their prices high – and to our shame, too many of our legislators can be bought. Else neither the high prices of needed drugs nor the high prices of research information could be sustained beyond a single legislative session.

Congress, Robert Darnton tells us, succeeded in requiring that research funded by the National Institute of Health be free of charge at PubMed Central—but lobbyists got a one-year moratorium on publication. 

That means any company using the research to bring out a new product must pay the publisher’s exorbitant price or miss the competitive market.

Ugly, isn’t it. And directly counter to our liberal notions of a free market. It seems only the rich -- individual people or corporations -- should be allowed to survive.

But the positive title to Darnton’s article has a basis. The very scientists  who write the articles upon which the costly journals depend are now rebelling. 

In 2010 the faculty at the University of California boycotted the Nature Publishing Company when it informed the university’s library that it was raising its prices by 400%. The faculty of UC, over the years, had contributed 5,300 articles to that ungrateful publication.

Even more to the point, Harvard, MIT, the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins and the University of California at Berkley and San Francisco have moved to the use of “open access journals” (which means free of charge.) They have even created funds to cover the processing fees, which apparently can be considerable in converting an academic article filled with odd characters and spacings into something uploadable to the internet.

Realizing that readership is far more important than the old and formerly respectable name of a publisher, these universities have opted for that “free exchange of ideas” that constructive innovation and the success of capitalism requires. 

Darnton, citing John Houghton, a specialist in the economics of information, tells us that in 2006 “a 5% increase in the accessibility of information would have produced an increase in productivity worth $16 billion.”

At what cost to us all does anyone still indulge in the delusion of the prestige of publishing in the old and now ridiculously over-priced academic journals?

To subscribe to The New York Review of Books:

Katherine Ashe is the author of the Montfort series, a four-volume novelized biography of Simon de Montfort, the founder of modern democracy:

book website:
personal website:

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Communism, Hollywood, Blacklists and Lies

In the early 20th century Communism was a political idea appealing to thoughtful people in numerous countries. It held out a solution to the abusive aspects of unrestrained capitalism and the corrupt favoritism of monarchies. No country was the signal leader in Communism as yet, and no issue of disloyalty to one’s nation arose, any more than in adherence to any other political ideology.

Then the Russian Revolution placed the Soviet Union as the world leader of Communism. In the United States the brutalities of the revolution caused many Americans to turn away from Communism now that it was associated with Russia and the destabilizing, violent churnings of Stalin’s murders.

But in World War II Russia was the United States’ ally, and the horrific losses suffered and determined conquest achieved by Russians on the Eastern Front brought the USSR back into guarded appreciation in the United States. Communists here felt vindicated, and Communism gained some new adherents, even though the USSR was now clearly the “home office” of the American Communist Party.

There was a sweep of liberalism across the United States; while voters chose Republican politicians, the labor unions gained in strength. And when even President Eisenhower, on leaving office, warned that the US’s principal challenge was its own “military industrial complex”, some saw Communism as the ultimate counterbalance – even though it meant perhaps a diversion of loyalty to Russia. 

But Russia, under Stalin and Khrushchev, very clearly had replaced the principals of communism with dictatorship and a program of expansion that had engulfed Eastern Europe and avowedly aimed at the world.

Communist Parties in Western Europe severed themselves from the USSR and remained viable independent political parties and an expression of an ideology unconnected to Russia. But in the US the Communist Party retained its links to Russia. 

Spy cases surfaced, with the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for smuggling the plans for the atomic bomb to Russia marking the beginning of the “arms race” and the Cold War that held over the world the real possibility of annihilation of all life on earth.

With this new and frightening world order of ever-readiness for universal death came a profound turning against those Americans who still adhered to the Communist Party in the United States. It might be looked upon as restraint that membership was not automatically considered treason. Senator Joseph Mccarthy headed a Senate investigative committee whose hearings were televised.

This was in the early days of popular ownership of television sets and my father and mother watched the proceedings as people later were fixated watching the burning and collapse of the World Trade Center – with this difference: the Mccarthy Hearings went on for weeks. 

My father, Fredric M. Frank, was a charter Member of the Screen Writers’ Guild, now the Writers Guild of America. He wrote films as a staff writer for Cecil B. de Mille. Patriotism and basic Christian faith (although my father was Jewish by descent) were values not imposed but shared by de Mille’s staff.

 When the Guild, moved by the Mccarthy hearings, began looking into Communist Party affiliations among its own membership, Fredric Frank was concerned, as were most Guild members then, about the influence that Communist adherents might have through the very influential medium of popular movies. 

A Blacklist was created by the Guild to alert studios to those writers who were members of the Communist Party or who refused to co-operate with the Mccarthy Hearings. Listed writers found work hard or impossible to get in Hollywood; most were forced to write under other names and/or to emigrate to Europe.  Among them were several of film’s finest writers.

One might well ask why these intelligent people continued to adhere to a party led by a foreign government that had so signally failed to effectively develop the principals of communism, that seized its neighboring countries’ assets and held on to them though the invading force of tanks – a country that was led by ruthless dictatorship and had a program of international imperialism. 

When many of their American comrades had renounced Russia’s travesty of communism, why did some still adhere and continue to be faithful to their Russian allied Communist Party when most Americans were looking upon Russia with cosiderable fear?

With the aging of the Cold War (without annihilation coming upon us), then with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the seriousness with which the Communist threat was taken in the 1950s ceased to be understood. And by the mid-1960s the Blacklisted screenwriters were free to write again under their own names in Hollywood.

And the backlash to the Blacklist set in. While the Guild as a whole took no responsibility for establishing the Blacklist, its members pointed out sacrificial victims, claiming their motives were not concern for their country but merely professional jealousy. Those targeted to take the blame for the Blacklist were now blacklisted themselves.

Among those targeted was my father, Fredric M. Frank. He had among his writing credits the de Mille films Samson and Delilah, the circus picture The Greatest Show on Earth for which he won an Oscar, and the classic The Ten Commandments. Now, at the height of his career, he was unable to get work.

In fifteen years (he died in 1977) he was able to sell only one screenplay. It was written solely by him, on speculation, and it was El Cid.

El Cid was sold through the producer Philip Yordan to Samuel Bronston who produced epic spectacle cinemas in Spain. Fredric moved to Spain for the better part of a year, rewriting his screenplay with the assistance of Spain’s foremost scholars of the life of Roderigo Diaz de Bivar, known as El Cid. 

Fredric’s contract with Bronston specified that when the completed shooting script was delivered and accepted and the final payment for the script paid, he was free to leave Spain and return home – this is a common clause in Guild scripts. (It was common practice in film making then for the miner rewrites needed in the course of shooting to be done by an uncredited rewrite person available on the set -- sometimes the producer or director's secretary..)

Seeing the completed film, my father was surprised to find rather fatuous scenes added to enlarge the role of Chimene for Sophia Lauren; and that now, instead of a producer’s credit, Yordan had a screenwriting credit. 

Yordan explained that Loren’s role had to be enlarged and his secretary, Clemmy, had done the job. He did not mention that the Italian government had put forth one million dollars to cover the costs of making Loren the second highest–paid film actress ever at that time. No wonder the role was enlarged and the camera lingered on her, to the disgust of her fellow-actor Charlton Heston.

That was how the issue remained until the 1990s. By this time the writers who had been blacklisted as Communists had become heroic victims and the writers who had supported the Blacklist were condemned or forgotten. 

But now the widow of one of the openly Communist writers, Ben Barzman, claimed that her husband was the actual writer of El Cid. Barzman had died in 1989 and never seems to have made any such claim himself, although Communist writers had long since been re-embraced by Hollywood.

But sympathy flew to the widow, Norma Barzman, whose claims grew more and more exaggerated. She may be seen repeatedly on features appended to the El Cid video, claiming that the Fredric Frank script was “trash”, “useless” and that, at the urging of Loren and Bronston, her husband re-wrote the whole shooting script – beginning with the opening scenes, inspired by the classic French play by Corneille.

Indeed, the whole of El Cid was inspired by Fred Frank’s reading of the Corneille play – and those opening scenes were filmed exactly as Frank, not Barzman, wrote them. (I have my father’s shooting scripts to prove it.)

Ben Barzman may have been the rewrite person at the shoots, present when the actors were present, but his contributions to the script were miner, if indeed his widow's claims are not complete fabrications intended chiefly to discredit a fancied political enemy.

The anti-Communist Blacklist lasted at most ten years – years of terrible struggle for the writers blocked from pursuing their professions in the United States. But the Backlash Blacklist, and the unconscionable support of claims such as those of Norma Barzman, have continued for more than thirty years and been perpetuated by irresponsible features producers and misplaced sympathies.

What’s to be gained from this? Hatred begets hatred, and no matter how patriotic the motive, the initiators can run the greatest risk of unending vindictiveness.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Democracy, on its 750th Anniversary

Democracy as we know it began in England in the summer of 1258. The document that set forth its shape and functions is not the much lauded Magna Carta,  but the Provisions of Oxford, and the slightly amplified Provisions of Westminster written three months later. 

These two Constitutions are little known because knowledge of them and their champion Simon de Montfort was suppressed for seven hundred years. Fifty years ago today Queen Elizabeth II signaled recognition of England’s stupendous leap toward modern government by celebrating the event that regained the government of the Provisions: Simon de Montfort’s miraculous victory over the royal forces at Lewes, May 14, 1264.

That victory has been re-enacted this year, and it’s hoped that, though the Queen’s gesture fifty years ago brought little on-going acknowledgement of Montfort and the Provisions, now and in the coming years his astonishing achievement -- and the importance of the document created by committees of lords and clergymen at Oxford in 1258 -- will be realized and celebrated as they ought.

What did the Provisions set forth? A Parliament composed of two Houses, one elected by the common people; a Chancellor (keeper of the royal seal without which no document was official) and Justiciar (head of the royal courts of law) chosen by the Parliament. The King remained upon the throne (the executive branch: president or prime minister in most modern democracies) but had power only to officially ratify Parliament’s decisions.

There had been “parliaments” before 1258, the word means merely a “gathering to talk.” Emperors, kings, warlords and tribal chiefs from time immemorial had sought advice from their followers, priests and even some common subjects they selected. What marks the Parliament of the Provisions as unique is that the Parliament had power over the king. And it met thrice yearly at a regularly appointed time and place – whether the king summoned it or not. 

Edward I summoned a “parliament” that included common men. Diverting attention from the far more radical powers of the Provisions, his is often called “the great Parliament.” Edward was in no way compelled to follow his gathering’s decisions – and for the most part he didn’t. Not until the revolution of Oliver Cromwell did Parliament regain its full force -- with the exception of the years 1264-1265, and it is this restoration that is celebrated on its 750th anniversary today.

What happened between the close of the meeting at Oxford in 1258 and May 1264 that many celebrate today as if it were the anniversary of the birth of England’s Parliament? 

At the Oxford meeting’s close the lords who, in committees, created the Provisions, departed in haste, pursuing King Henry III’s Lusignan half-brothers. They feared the brothers would escape to the continent and raise an army against the astonishing new form of government just proposed. Besieging the Lusignan brothers in the castle at Winchester, the lords fell victim to poison – a favorite Lusignan response to siege (they had poisoned King Louis IX’s army when they were besieged at Frontenay in Gascony in 1242.) 

Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester and England’s chief military tactician, alone of the lords, did not go to Winchester but remained at Oxford deftly putting the Provisions into effect, sending summons to all England’s sheriffs to hold elections of “knights of the shire” to come and represent the common people’s will at the newly constituted, and regularly scheduled, Parliament to be held in October. 

At that October meeting King Henry and his heir, Edward, were made to swear to uphold the Provisions and the Parliament it created. In the following year, at the next Parliament, the slightly amended, and strengthened, Provisions were adopted under the name of the Provisions of Westminster.

But now opposition to the innovations was gaining strength. The very lords (those who had survived the poisoning) who’d been delighted to curb the royal prerogatives of taxation and Henry’s particular offenses, were infuriated when those same curbs of law were applied to their own powers over their peasantry. 

And there were the Ordinances – a proposal that would radically change the economic system of feudalism to something approaching modern socialism. The Ordinances were repeatedly blocked from coming up for vote. 

From what did such radical, almost socialist, thinking spring? 

The philosophical/theological foundation upon which this amazing revolution was built was the millennial theory of a twelfth century theologian, Joachim de Fiore. He held that the year 1260 was to mark the advent of the Third Era of mankind: a thousand years in which kingship, individual nations and the church would dissolve into a single world order governed by the common man through the process of free elections.

The revolution of 1258 was a practical response by the lords and clergy of England to a long pattern of abuses by King Henry, but their actions were seen by the common people, and by the Franciscan and Dominican friars who preached to them, as the advent of the New Age. 

And Simon de Montfort, taking upon himself the responsibility of making the government of the Provisions a reality, was seen as God’s agent – the Angel of the Millennium.

King Henry, never acquiescing in the Provisions, worked for its suppression and by 1260 he was ready to oppose Parliament with an army brought from France. Montfort, in a move that stuns the imagination, stole the army initially collected and brought it to England to defend the Parliament. When Henry eventually arrived in England, protesting his innocence and love of Parliament, Montfort was tried for treason.

The trial, held in France and postponed until 1262, released Montfort from all charges. But by that time Parliament in England had fallen victim to King Henry’s undermining and the lords’ betrayal of the principals that would have given their own people recourse against abuse.

Having had enough of England, preparing to go to Palestine, Montfort was approached by clergymen and the young heirs of England’s nobility who embraced the Provisions. An army was raised to oppose the King and lords, and, succumbing to temptation, Montfort returned to England and agreed to lead it.

At first victory was his. City after city capitulated or was conquered, King Henry and Edward were effectively held prisoners and made to accept the Provisions. But with the King and Prince’s escape. Facing direct military confrontation against the monarch to whom his loyalty had been solemnly sworn, Montfort opted for arbitration by the King of France – supposing he again would win in France’s Court. 

But, injured in a riding accident, Montfort could not attend, and the Mise of Amiens declared the Provisions null – against God’s principals of Creation -- as currently interpreted by Thomas Aquinas whose theology now was favored over that of revolution-provoking Joachim.

Montfort refused to accept the decision at Amiens and openly went to war against his king. The common folk hailed him as the Angel with the Sword of the Apocalypse. But his army consisted of his sons, a few young lords, noble youths untried in battle, archers from Wales and from the criminal hideouts of Sherwood and the Weald and several thousand Londoners distinguished for rapine.

These amateurs faced the large, battle-wise army of the lords of England and their knights, King Henry himself, Prince Edward and Henry’s clever brother Richard, the elected King of the Germans. 

After the Londoners in his following raped and murdered their way through the city of Rochester, Montfort clearly came to doubt the divine mission of his cause. Repeatedly he begged King Henry for peace and amnesty — up to the night of May 13 when, following the royal army at a slight distance, he sent ahead the Bishops of London and Worcester, offering his personal surrender and payment of reparations to the sum of thirty-thousand pounds.

King Henry, lodging at the priory in the village of Lewes, refused to grant mercy. 

With no recourse -- with death inevitable as inexperienced youths and rabble faced the King’s well-armed, well-taught military, Simon de Montfort had the two bishops administer the Last Rights to his whole army. 

Then, through the night, they marched to Lewes, taking up positions on three peninsulas of the high downs that probed above the little valley of Lewes. Dawn was their signal to gallop headlong to their deaths amid the King’s camp gathered round the priory. At dawn Montfort’s army made their hopeless attack. It was the morning of May 14, 1264, 750 years ago this day.

Miraculously, by afternoon the army of the Provisions and its commander Simon de Montfort were victorious. The royal arm was destroyed, most of the lords of England, the King and his brother Richard were held prisoner. Prince Edward, who had absented himself and his soldiers from the battlefield, intent upon pursuing fleeing Londoners across the downs, was held tightly at siege in Lewes’ little castle. 

The Angel of the Apocalypse and his army of innocents (cleansed by Edward of its murderous Londoners) had won. It seemed indeed a miracle. And it confirmed that the Provisions were God’s Will for mankind.
Nothing, not even God’s so manifested will, seems to move with steady progress in history. Within a year the forces opposing the Provisions had regrouped, and vanquished the Provisions’ partisans at the battle of Evesham. 

Montfort was slain and his body desecrated, but from beneath all that remained -- his naked torso -- a spring came forth, its waters proclaimed to have healing powers. 

Montfort was revered as the champion of the great lost cause, the Angel with the Sword, or possible the Risen Christ returned to bring God’s kingdom to mankind: that new order governed through direct divine inspiration and election -- when God’s Will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.

We have yet two hundred years to go in this millennium of revolution. Thomas Merton foresaw the coming of a united world ruled by all mankind as achievable through technological. This advent of World Consciousness we seem on our way to achieving through the internet. 

But will mankind be wise? The revolution of Joachim and Simon de Montfort was one of faith. We might achieve dominance of a unified world by the common man in two hundred years – but where is the divine spirit guiding each soul to act and vote well?  We can create the new tools of the Millennium – but can we create the new man?

Katherine Ashe is the author of the four-volume novelized biography of Simon de Montfort. The volumes relevant to the above article are Montfort the Revolutionary 1253-1260 and Montfort the Angel with the Sword 1260 – 1265, and both contain a full bibliography of medieval and modern sources.

book website:
personal website:

Monday, May 5, 2014

Ukraine, then and now

Vladimir amid the poppies

Vladimir, son of Prince Igor, dreams of his love for Konchakovna, the daughter of his people’s enemy. The dream mankind cherishes of peace that surpasses history and hatred.

Amid the poppies now:

When can we grow beyond issues of borders, of trade, of history, and cease to hate, to kill?
Sometimes two pictures say more than can be said in words.

photo of the soldier thanks to Oleg Sergheev

Katherine Ashe is the author of the Montfort series on the life of the founder of modern elective government.