Thursday, June 18, 2009

Intellectual Property

James Boyle, The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

Mark Helprin, Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto (New York: Harper, 2009).

Intellectual property is a constantly shifting and changing area, and the literature on it runs the spectrum from the historical to the hysterical. Here are two books representing very different perspectives, one authored by a lawyer (Boyle) and the other by a writer (Helprin).

In 2007 novelist and essayist Mark Helprin wrote an op-ed in the New York Times defending copyright and found himself the target of angry letters and blog postings as far as the Internet could reach. Digital Barbarism is his response, with Helprin placing the copyright fracas in the middle of the digital era, the latter the target of his biting humor and witticisms. Helprin comments freely on how we have signed so much over to the machines, with comments on the decline of the quality of writing, the impoverishment of publishing, the abandonment of reading, misplaced enthusiasms about how ideas are formed and what creativity is really about, and so forth. Helprin is angry, of course, and some will find his assessments to fall wide of the mark or just plain hysterical, but he offers insights and notions that ought to elicit some careful thought and response. Consider this, for example: “We tend to look up rather than at ourselves when surrendering to such passions of righteousness. The assault on copyright is a species of this, based on the infantile presumption that a feeling of justice and indignation gives one a right to the work, property, and time (those are very often significantly equivalent) of others, and that this, whether harbored at the ready or expressed in action, is noble and fair” (p. 181).

Boyle’s book provides a variety of highly readable case studies (in music, the arts, science, and technology), presented to reflect his concern about we are closing more and more down. He argues that every time we reconsider intellectual property, we add more barriers. Boyle worries that much of twentieth-century culture is under wraps, “lost culture” (p. 9). “Copyright, intended to be the servant of creativity, a means of promoting access to information, is becoming an obstacle to both” (p. 15). Why worry about this? “Because the public domain is the basis for our art, our science, and our self-understanding. It is the raw material from which we make new inventions and create new cultural works” (p. 39).

These are two books that could be used in a course. Helprin’s work is an argumentative, highly personal, account. Boyle’s work is a scholarly study, and the target of some of Helprin’s sarcasm. Fun.

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