The BNF, Guy Debord, and the Schizophrenic Spectacle of Copyrights

Several days ago, along with a small delegation from “France Culture,” I went to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France [BNF] to see the exhibition titled Guy Debord: An Art of War. Since the official opening had only been on 27 March 2013, the idea was to cast a glance at the on-going project of the collecting of notes, photos, films and texts by the father of Situationism in order to prepare for the broadcast of The Big Table with Caroline Broué[1] that would be dedicated to Guy Debord’s heritage.

The only snag was this: we were greeted by those responsible for the external communications of the BNF, who had obviously not appreciated my attempts to take a few photographs for possible publication on my Twitter feed and my blog. Fear of a (bad) buzz[2]? Difficulty in grasping the logistics of on-line media? Not at all: the reason given was – drum roll, if you please! – copyrights. My request clashed with a categorical refusal that was first made face to face, and then over the telephone. The rest of the dispute unfolded through email over the following 48 hours.

The essential element of these exchanges, which I have reproduced here verbatim out of obvious respect for my correspondents, merits being placed on my blog. This will help us understand the functioning of a large governmental institution such as the BNF at the moment of its enclosure of the communal goods of knowledge,[3] and will throw a harsh light on the obvious schizophrenia of the question of copyrights, which are overly protected when it comes to the BNF's works and despised when it comes to the rights of others.

The email sent to me by my principal correspondent (henceforth called Mrs. Press) at 9:51 am on Thursday 21 March 2013 is revealing in this sense. It declares that it is impossible for her to give me authorization to publish on my blog photos taken by me at the exhibition. Already foreseeing my intention to play “the Internet card” – my reputation has preceded me – she hastened to specify that this would apply to all other media. She affirmed that the reason is the rights covering certain photos.

Whose copyrights, on which photos? I retorted, sincerely surprised. After all, if it were a question of images, they were taken by me personally during my visit. Thus, in principle, the rights in question would be mine own.And, indeed, the question of the right of visitors to exhibitions to take photos caused a lot of ink to be spilled two years ago, at the time of the Orsay Commons Operation.[4] On that occasion, a group of Facebook users had launched a peaceful and playful initiative that protested against the absurd decision to prohibit any recorded images of the works at the Musée d’Orsay by going there and taking their pictures of themselves in amusing poses.[5]

Apparently, my attempts entered into the same scenario. Like Orsay Commons, they fell under the laws in force. Certainly, I wrote in my response to Mrs. Press, in principal the works displayed at temporary exhibitions cannot be photographed because they belong to other institutions or to private loaners. But what is displayed as part of Guy Debord, An Art of War comes from the Debord holdings. And these holdings, as Raphaëlle Rérolle reminds us in the excellent paper he published in the “Culture and Ideas” supplement to Le Monde on 22 March,[6] were purchased by the BNF (which thus holds the reproduction rights) for the astronomical sum of 2.7 millions Euros.

At this stage of our correspondence, I confess, I still thought that the BNF’s reaction revealed an institutional and bureaucratic logic that was decidedly not in accord with the spirit of the Guy Debord exhibition that it sought to promote. How could they not permit the free sharing of the traces of my visit to it? After all, the appropriation of culture was one of the pillars of the Situationist International, whose journals were always accompanied by this specification: “All of the texts published in the Internationale Situationniste can be freely reproduced, translated or adapted, without even indication of their origin.”

In the following exchanges, she proposed to send me several images made available to the press. (It was useless to make clear to her that I’m not “press.” I am a university researcher and my blog and Twitter feed are tools of a scientific nature in which I comment upon objects and events in an independent manner, and not by communicating multimedia content or by passing on the materials prepared in advance by public relations services.)

We are still at the afternoon of 21 March [in this chronology], and a doubt began to creep upon me: that the problem was elsewhere, namely, in the imperious necessity of the BNF to create artificial restrictions on access to the works. In the current context, this could not be justified by the need to preserve them. The heroic vision of the library as a fortress besieged by barbaric hordes of its worst enemies – readers – has had its moment. No, this necessity was justified by the BNF’s need to commercialize culture. From whence comes the will to prevent the free circulation on the Internet of images produced in an independent manner (without computerized tattoos or the caption “All rights reserved” on photos for the press). And this independence might dissuade potential visitors from leaving the exhibition through the gift shop where they can buy postcards of the works that they have not been allowed to photograph. . . .

Am I exaggerating? The next email from Mrs. Press showed me that perhaps I was on the right track. She recognized that I indeed owned the copyrights on my own photos. But such ownership “could not be substituted for the other copyrights on these works.” The BNF could acquire the [Debord] holdings “without necessarily acquiring the rights” to represent or reproduce them. This was why, she continued, certain documents in the exhibition couldn’t be used without particular authorization from their creators. How could one obtain these particular authorizations? Wouldn’t it be sufficient to send an official request to all the holders of copyrights upon the pieces in question (furthermore: which ones?)? But there were good chances that this step no longer suited the BNF. . . .

In fact, it happened that, starting from that very day, 21 March 2013, the BNF revealed the details of a project that represented a radical change in its business model (no more seeking out grants or patrons: profits now had to come from the sales of e-books) as well as in its philosophy with respect to intellectual property (it will do what it wants with books and images, as long as the holders of the rights do not explicitly assert title to them).

The new project is called ReLIRE (Registre des Livres Indisponibles en Réédition Electronique),[7] and it focuses on the digitization of unavailable books by 20th Century authors. That is to say, books covered by copyright, published in France before 1 January 2001, and no longer in print [commercialisés]. A worthy initiative, it goes without saying. But on the project’s homepage,[8] there’s an annoying paragraph that says, “If the title holders are not opposed to this, these books will become collectively managed in September 2013. Then they will be placed on sale in electronic form.” Just as I said: a change in the business model, a change in the philosophy of intellectual property. . . .

Do you know who has already tried a similar operation? Google, and, by doing so, provoked the ire of American federal authorities.[9] Is this another example of a company trying to make money from the works of others? MegaUpload and everyone else knows the outcome of this story. . . .[10] Thus it is not surprising that certain wags have described this beautiful initiative as “legalized piracy.”[11]

Thus, if the BNF cheerfully takes on the presumption of being the titular owners and arrogates to itself the right to digitize and put on sale works of which they do not own the copyrights, why can’t I share my flea-ridden photos? Precisely because – but this is only an enlightened supposition – it wants to assert (as in the case of ReLIRE) “the inversion of the responsibility for the proof” of copyright ownership and, consequently, doesn’t want to disturb the [ignorance of the] titular owners of them. It certainly doesn’t want my photographic whims to alert them. Thus, the BNF can continue to do what it wants with the electronic content that it has created on the basis of the works of others – “as long as the title holders are not opposed to this.”

It is here that copyrights become a spectacle to the extent that the spectacle – according to Debord – is only the vehicle of market relations. In such case, cultural relations are being exposed to predation and market recuperation, not on the part of private companies, but State institutions,[12] which bring about the double blow of making national property [patrimonialiser] and capitalizing upon the common goods that are represented by the very works of one of the first intellectuals to have theorized the surpassing of all intellectual property.

[1] Link provided by publisher: http://www. debord-en-direct-du-salon-du-livre-2013-03-22.

[2] Note by translator: English in original.

[3] Link provided by publisher: http:// informationnelles-pour-favoriser-les-apprentissages-en-reseau/.

[4] Link provided by publisher:, 627.html#1.

[5] Link provided by publisher: https://

[6] Link provided by publisher: 21/a-chacun-son-debord_1852103_3246.html.

[7] Note by translator: the Register of [Otherwise] Unavailable Books in Electronic Reprinted Editions. “ReLIRE” means “re-read.”

[8] Link provided by publisher:

[9] Link provided by publisher: culture/livre/la-bibliotheque-universelle-de-google-stoppee-par-la- justice_975299.html.

[10] Link provided by publisher: guerre-contre-les-creatures-qu-elle-a-enfante.

[11] Link provided by publisher: registre-relire-ouvre-ses-portes-41142.htm.

[12] Link provided by publisher:

(Written by Antonio A. Casilli and published by BodySpaceSociety on 23 March 2013. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! on 26 March 2013. Footnotes as indicated.)

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