China - photo by flickr user Diego Aviles

China – photo by flickr user Diego Aviles

China has a long history of censoring free speech and media content in an effort to control the information its citizens consume. In 2016, Reporters Without Borders ranked it 176 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index, and that position is likely to keep sliding as China continues to fortify its virtual borders. (By comparison, Russia ranks at 148 on that same index.) This month, China went after Apple, which had long received somewhat preferential treatment in the country, shutting down its iBooks Store and iTunes Movies just six months after those services launched. That same day, it abruptly suspended a partnership between e-commerce giant Alibaba and Disney, struck in December 2015, which allowed Alibaba to license streaming Disney content. China also significantly tightened restrictions on foreign nonprofits under the guise of national defense, echoing Vladimir Putin’s policies in Russia. The month ended with a move against one of its own: China suspended Ren Zhiqiang, an outspoken property magnate, from the Communist party in retaliation for Ren’s publicly criticizing President Xi Jinping’s call for loyalty from the Chinese media. All signs seemingly point to the government of the world’s most populous country getting more and more repressive by the week.

Google Books scores a big win for fair use. A decade-long copyright battle has finally come to an end as the United States Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge from the Authors Guild and other writers claiming that Google’s scanning of books to make excerpts available on its search engine, without the authors’ permission, is a form of copyright infringement. Guild members believe Google is providing an illegal free substitute for their work, depriving authors and publishers of potential revenue. (An original 2005 settlement, later rejected by courts, would have required Google to pay authors.) The Supreme Court did not comment on its decision, but the crux of the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals’s earlier ruling in Google’s favor was that despite scanning entire books, Google is only supplying “snippets” to the public. Since in most cases these snippets are vetted so as not to actually satisfy a reader’s need for the entire book, Google’s use of them can be considered “transformative” as permitted by the fair use doctrine in U.S. copyright law. The court also considers these excerpts primarily a source of information about the full texts, and individual authors have never been guaranteed “an exclusive right to supply information… about [their] works” under copyright law. ArsTechnica posits that “in the long run, the ruling could inspire other large-scale digitization projects.”

From robot-building to social innovation, Silicon Valley invests in artists: In mid-April, a group of artists, impact investors, philanthropic funders and social innovators launched Upstart Co-Lab. Led by Laura Callanan, who was briefly the NEA’s Senior Deputy Chairman under Jane Chu, the new collaborative aims to connect more artists with social entrepreneurship and impact investing opportunities, recognizing the importance of artists as catalysts for economic and social change in the private as well as public sector. With partners including the Ford Foundation, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Oberlin College on board, some of Co-lab’s more ambitious initial proposals include a new Creative Economy Index Fund (comprising U.S. public companies across the creative industries) that seeks to enable targeted impact investment in the arts for the first time. An “ArtPath” national initiative also promises to help artists develop career skills and plans to better make a living from their creative work. Meanwhile, according to a recent Washington Post report, one particular sub-sector of Silicon Valley is especially in need of creative professionals like writers who can “engineer the personalities” of virtual assistants, i.e. Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. An ambitious new crop of virtual assistant startups (garnering at least $35 million in investment over the past year) is developing bots that can engage in not just mundane office tasks but more “human” interactions, requiring the same types of colorful personalities and detailed backstories as Hollywood characters. Up for debate is just how lifelike to make these virtual assistants without causing psychological confusion. Yet giving these rookie robots enough “people skills” to handle all possible workplace situations (including avoiding being provoked by their “bosses” into publicly offensive behavior) seemingly requires the skills of true artists.

Music, art and the Panama Papers. The Panama Papers–a leak of 11.5 million files from the database of the world’s fourth-biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca–rocked the world when they were released this month by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The Papers–the largest leak in whistleblower history–reveal the myriad ways the rich have exploited tax havens to conceal their wealth, and have fascinated and horrified the public in equal measure with their scope and complexity. They implicate some 143 politicians, including twelve national leaders among its pages, with a $2 billion trail that leads all the way to Russian president Vladimir Putin. So what does this have to do wit the arts? For one thing, Putin’s apparent use of the St. Petersburg-based cellist Sergei Roldugin as his “bag man” has sparked the public’s imagination. More substantively, the art market, which this year has reached astronomical proportions, has had its underbelly exposed by the scandal. The papers reveal several instances of potentially shady dealings, raising troubling questions about the value of provenance and the legality of ownership.

Cinema returns to Gaza. The embattled Gaza Strip once enjoyed a vibrant cinema culture, with more than a dozen cinemas across the small territory showing films almost daily. In 1987, these cinemas burned during the first Palestinian uprising. They were repaired, only to be destroyed, definitively, in 1996. In January, Gaza Cinema, led by members of the production company Ain Media, quietly began a movie-going revival. They rented a small events space, and screened “Oversized Coat,” a 2013 film from the Jordan-based Palestinian director Nawras Abu Salehl. As word has spread, so has demand; this month the organizers added a second weekly show. Tickets are priced at an accessible $2.50, allowing many to participate their first-ever movie-going experience. For the moment, the organizers are focused on Palestinian films, though they plan to expand their content (with permission, of course).

MUSICAL CHAIRS / COOL JOBS

  • After twenty-five years with the McKnight Foundation, Neal Cuthbert has announced he will retire from his position of vice president of program at the end of this year.
  • Robert L. Hughes has been named the new director of K-12 strategy at the Gates Foundation.
  • Regina R. Smith has been appointed managing director of The Kresge Foundation’s Arts & Culture Program.
  • The Ford Foundation seeks a Program Associate. Posted on April 8; no closing date.

NEW RESEARCH OF NOTE