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Guy Debord's Widow Threatens NYU Professor with Copyright Violation

Guy Debord's Widow Threatens NYU Professor with Copyright Violation

Professor Is Accused of Infringing the Copyright of a Man Who Opposed


Guy Debord, a Marxist philosopher who died in 1994, was no fan of
private property. But apparently his widow is one.

A lawyer representing the widow, Alice Becker-Ho, has threatened
Alexander R. Galloway, an associate professor of culture and
communication at New York University, with legal action. Mr. Galloway
says the lawyer has sent him a letter demanding that he stop
distributing his online war game, which the lawyer says infringes a
copyright held by the Debord estate. The French philosopher had created
a similar board game 30 years ago.

But copyrights and some forms of intellectual property were anathema to
Debord, says Mr. Galloway. The Situationist International movement,
which Debord founded, in 1957, is a mix of anarchism and Marxism. Its
followers scrawled "Abolish copyright" on walls during the May 1968
student uprisings in Paris.

The humor in defending the property rights of Debord, a Marxist, has not
been lost on scholars, who have publicized the case on their blogs.

Mr. Galloway does not deny that the two-person computer game he
developed is based on Debord's creation, the Game of War. The
philosopher, an avid student of war strategy, released a few handcrafted
copies of the board game in 1978. The object of the game, which
resembles chess, is to corner and destroy opposing pieces. Debord and
his wife wrote a book about it that was translated into English last year.

One of Debord's games, cast in silver and copper, is on display at
Columbia University's Buell Center for the Study of Architecture,
alongside Mr. Galloway's computer version, called Kriegspiel. The object
of Kriegspiel, German for a generic 18th-century war game, is the same
as in Debord's game.

A computer programmer, Mr. Galloway says he spent about a year designing
the digital game, which can be downloaded from the Web at no charge.
"It's part of my scholarly research into how antagonism is simulated in
war games and computer games," he said. "It's also part of my research
into the work of Debord."

Despite the similarities between his creation and Debord's, Mr. Galloway
disagrees that he is breaking the law. "I don't think I'm infringing on
anyone's copyright in the creation of this game," he says, declining to
discuss his legal situation further.

John Beckman, a spokesman for New York University, says only that it
received a similar cease-and-desist letter and has responded.

Wendy M. Seltzer, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for
Internet & Society, is familiar with Mr. Galloway's case. The Debord
estate, she says, is overreaching in accusing him of copyright infringement.

The idea for a game is not copyrightable, she argues; only the image of
a game is. Mr. Galloway's game uses the idea of Debord's game, she says,
but does not duplicate its artistry and detail.

Ms. Seltzer, a visiting assistant professor at Northeastern University
School of Law, sees similarities between Mr. Galloway's case and one
involving the Facebook-based word game Scrabulous. In that case, the
owners of the board game Scrabble have accused the developers of
Scrabulous of infringing their copyright. Ms. Seltzer says that claim,
too, is without merit.

Öyvind Fahlström also has a widow

Many artists have created games to satisfy their aesthetic and political longings, Duchamp a prime example. Then there is the singular case of Öyvind Fahlström (1928-1976), painter, installation artist, poet, critic, creator of happenings, co-conspirator with Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Kluver. Within a very varied body of work, he produced several world political paintings with movable magnetic elements in the early 1970s, modeled after the famous Monopoly game board, dealing with the Vietnam War and with the global realpolitik of emerging nations in the Third World.

I do not believe Parker Brothers ever went to court for copyright infringement in this matter, but at the time there was no possibility of putting it on the internet and no concomitant threat of commercial exploitation. The board game pieces were one offs, or at most small editions. Still, Fahlström was decidedly subversive, anti-authoritarian and leftist, as well as an early adopter of new or alternative media in his work. Had the possibility of widespread internet dissemination been available, it is quite possible he would have used it, and then landed in legal hot water.

A Parker Brothers lawsuit against Fahlström would have come from the usual defenders, the pitbulls of corporate intellectual property. But the legal harassment Alex Galloway is currently receiving from Guy Debord's widow is particularly ironic, in that it unexpectedly emanates from within anarchist/Marxist/Situationist circles, from what one might assume to be friendly quarters. Were there not in fact a real live lawsuit, the whole thing would seem staged, like a prank or post-Structuralist agitprop performance: let's sue for copyright infringement in the name of Debord, who never met a © he didn't want to deface.

We can carry the irony one step further. Should anyone now wish to disseminate Fahlström’s games online, or possibly even re-interpret the Monopoly board from his particular perspective, without first gaining the proper permission and satisfying strict protocols from his estate, they would most likely meet strenuous opposition if not an actual lawsuit from another overly protective art widow: Sharon Avery Fahlström.