April 17, 2018

Siva Vaidhyanathan | Movers & Shakers 2002

The Luckiest Young Scholar in America

“Copyright unites all of my cultural interests…I can’t think of another subject that could have taken me so many interesting places”

With his 2001 debut book, Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Thwarts Creativity (NYU Pr.), Siva Vaidhyanathan has firmly established himself as one of the world’s premier thinkers on one of the world’s most complex subjects–copyright and intellectual property. But perhaps the most impressive thing about Vaidhyanathan, a superb writer and speaker, is that he has made such complicated issues not only understandable but almost, well, entertaining.

Indeed, few issues today cut more deeply to the heart of librarianship than the digital copyright concerns Vaidhyanathan has chosen to champion so vigorously. In an increasingly digital world, where fair use is under fire and where libraries could one day face vast limitations on their ability to serve patrons, Vaidhyanathan has been a tireless advocate, racking up frequent flier miles in bunches to deliver presentations to librarians, lawyers and lawmakers, and information professionals all over the world, including an appearance at the June 2001 American Library Association annual conference in San Francisco, where he greatly impressed librarians with his thoughtful, energetic discussion of Napster and the future of information.

“Librarians are on the front lines of copyright battles,” says Vaidhyanathan. “More importantly, librarians are the custodians of our information and cultural commons. And they have a passionate sense of public service. So I knew from the beginning of my work that it would matter to the library community. But I have been overwhelmed by the positive reception. And I have been more than honored by it. Even if the only people who bought and read my book were librarians, I would be satisfied. No group of Americans cares more about the issues of openness, access, and democracy than librarians.”


Current position: Professor of Information Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Degree: Ph.D., American Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 1999

Great start: Copyrights and Copywrongs [is] “the best book on the subject to date” (Publishers Weekly)

In addition to his much-heralded first book (Publishers Weekly deemed the effort “simply the best book on the subject [of copyright] to date”), Vaidhyanathan has continued to be a prolific author, thinker, and commentator, writing a slew of influential academic articles, as well as serving as a frequent contributor to the copyright debate in more popular outlets like National Public Radio, the New York Times, Nation, and MSNBC. He’s even testified as an expert before the U.S. Copyright Office on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. And his next book, on Napster and distributed network technology–key issues in the future development of librarianship–is scheduled to be published by Basic Books in the fall of 2002.

By any standard, Vaidhyanathan’s accomplishments are impressive. But for a scholar barely three years from defending his dissertation, the landmark work he has produced signals the arrival of a truly original thinker. “I consider myself the luckiest young scholar in America,” Vaidhyanathan says. “Copyright unites all of my cultural interests. I was able to use copyright.to write about literature, politics, democracy, music, film, television, video games, and software. I can’t think of any other subject that could have taken me to so many interesting places.”

The coming years are likely to be trying times for librarians and the public, as the future of copyright in the digital age is sorted out–culturally, technologically, and legislatively. So it’s a good thing that librarians–and the public–have Siva Vaidhyanathan to help make sense of such complex issues. After all, “77 million people signed up for Napster in a year and half,” explains Vaidhyanathan. “That means 77 million people have asked themselves ethical and legal questions about access, use, and copying. My job is to connect those users to larger issues of creativity and democracy.”