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Public Space Private Matters

I just made the 5:15 evening commuter train from Back Bay Station, Boston. I took the last seat available in the fourth car. A young businessman sat next to me. Three minutes out of the station, he flipped open his cell phone and made a business call. He did not stop until he got off the train 35 minutes later.

My eye contact with him, "How long are we talking here?" was ignored. This not being the Seinfeld show, and my not wanting a Costanza-like confrontation, I impishly took out my reporter's notebook. Since he included me in his office, I figured I'd see what business we were doing.

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He quoted prices and services to various clients. I noted the companies he contacted - well you get the picture. That night I looked up his company on the Internet and sent an e-mail to the sales manager, with specifics. The suggestion that his salesman had been rude for using a phone, full volume, in a confined public space received a not-so-terse reply, the gist of which was - "none of your business."

Was I eavesdropping as the sales manager charged? I don't think so. Short of moving to a different car on the train (possibly not getting a seat), or putting headphones on and playing a Walkman, what was I to do? We're still writing the rules, on what's public, private, and in-between in our mobile communications.

Cell-phone etiquette is the subject of Kirsten Conover's article in this week's section (see Page B3). She holds out hope that mores about wired space and personal space are evolving in the right direction since a pager first interrupted movies, sermons, and who knows, even a marriage proposal or two.

Gail Chaddock's cover piece (at right) is also about public-private matters. The communal lightning-rod is copyright law and its interplay with popular culture.

Entertainment corporations, trusts, and estates seek to extend copyright protection by 20 years.

Any change in rules would ripple throughout society. Not just financial interests are at play although, clearly, financial interests are driving the change. Copyrighted material earns the US $60 billion plus in annual exports alone. Copyright sets ground rules for creations of the mind. It legally defines the identity of artists, composers, musicians, and authors. It safeguards the fruits of mental labor from unwanted or illegal use. It mediates conflicting interests and provides fair compensation to the owners of a copyright. Violation of copyright is tantamount to stealing.

From Mickey Mouse's picture on grade-school notebooks to singing show tunes by Girl Scouts (or not) around campfires, the question Ms. Chaddock asks is: How does a society define itself, free of commercial interests? Put another way, creative artists feed off the culture they live in. At what point is the culture allowed free access to what it has given to artists?

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* Comments or questions? Write to Ideas Editor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail

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