Enabling Our Public Selves in a World of Maximal Copyright Control

With the web aflame this week with talk about legislation that aims to the major media companies exert greater control over the content they helped create (or that they inherited, acquired, stole, depending on the case), I was inspired again by a vision from Lewis Hyde about the need for us to reframe the narrative from simply being one about people who create and own intellectual property to one where we think about ways that we can be and should be public selves and that we can also be individuals with intellectual property rights. The discussion today is too much framed around notions of individual property and not enough around the cultural commons that we historically have had in America. Over the years, that commons has been walled off in various ways (enclosed, much as land was enclosed in England beginning in the 1500s and mostly completed in the 1800s).

I was first introduced to Hyde’s ideas last year when I read his amazing book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership. If you want to get an introduction to his thinking, this 14 January 2011 story on the radio show On the Media about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech delves deep into creativity, copyright, and the commons.

Here’s a pull quote from Hyde in the On the Media piece where he is talking about public selves:

I’m interested in collective being. I’m interested in making it easier for people to be public and social selves, as Martin Luther King certainly was. The risk is that if we turn everything into private property, it becomes harder and harder for us to have these common or collective selves, which is something we need. In anthropology, there’s an interesting resurrection of an old word, which is the word “dividual.” So we live in a nation that values individuality; we live in a nation of individuals. But a dividual person is somebody who’s imagined to contain within himself or herself the community that he or she lives in. So it would be nice if we began to have a better sense of how to own and circulate art and ideas, such that we could be present in our dividuality, as well as our individuality. 

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