“In Denmark music downloaded by subscription self-destructs when the subscription expires. So does my annual subscription to the online Oxford English Dictionary unless I renew it.”
—Jason Epstein, The New York Review of Books, March 11, 2010
Many subscribers to the winter concert series of the Copenhagen Chamber Society were startled when composer Gregos Jørgensen’s trio for piano, violin, and Pentaerythritol tetranitrate ended in an explosive finale that took with it most of the stage at Charlottenborg Hall. But those who had read the program notes distributed before the Tuesday evening performance knew the controlled detonation of the musical composition was all part of “destruktive-ophavsret,” a new initiative of the Danish government aimed at preemptively protecting the rights of intellectual-property owners.
Denmark first introduced the program in an effort to revive its ailing record industry, which, like most, has seen profits suffer with the rise of electronic file-sharing. In a pilot program launched in January, popular songs like “Party i provinsen,” “Jeg vil have dig for mig selv,” and “Empire State of Mind” were issued on disposable media players programmed to self-destruct a week after purchase.
Pop music fans seemed unfazed by the change—some barely appearing to notice—while copyright holders were thrilled by the prospect of their properties becoming goods that consumers must replenish continually. But as destruktive-ophavsret expanded to cover all copyrighted works, many Danes had some concerns about the program. Literary enthusiasts, for example, took a while to warm to the idea of e-readers wired with military-grade charges, not to mention traditionally bound volumes that burst into flames when the last page was turned and the book was closed.
“I was really enjoying ‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,’ but I skipped ahead to see how it ended, and the next thing I knew my shirt sleeves were on fire,” said Lærke Lund, a Danish book lover who plans to enroll in a speed-reading course so she can get through a new translation of “Anna Karenina” before its government-mandated one-month subscription expires.
While some artists have complained that destruktive-ophavsret is an infringement upon their work and perhaps even constitutes censorship, others, like composer Jørgensen, have found inspiration in it. And many Danish novelists argue the policy has helped them to break free from the boundaries of the printed page. “It’s nothing short of a revolution in how we experience the written word,” said Magnus Vestergaard, a writer of apocalyptic fiction. “When your novel ends with the destruction of the entire known universe, nothing conveys that idea better than the simultaneous explosion of a bit of C-4 tucked into the binding.”
It remains to be seen whether Denmark’s strategy to combat digital piracy will be adopted by other nations. Many publishers have voiced worries about liability issues, particularly following an incident last week in which the Yale University’s Beinecke Library was leveled just as an undergraduate finished reading the entry for “zyxt” in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Danny Mulligan is a musician with the Flanks and a contributing editor at The Onion. He lives in New York City.