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.
If you haven’t seen the post on Waxy.org by Andy Baio about how he felt compelled to settle a case in which he was accused of copyright infringement, go read it now. It’s a great, personal tale about how copyright laws have over-reached and block artistic expression. It’s also a nice intro to the indeterminacy of fair use guidelines, especially the issue of what counts as a transformative use.
Thanks to Jessamyn West for her retweet that brought this to my attention.
I’m about a third of the way into Lewis Hyde’s latest book, Common as Air, which looks examines the idea of a “cultural commons” in America. In an early chapter, Hyde gives a thumbnail sketch of the idea of a commons as they once existed in England before the enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries. Before most of the commons were lost to land grabs by private owners, there were a rich set of traditions and practices governing the use of the commons. One of the more interesting annual traditions was known as “beating the bounds,” which occurred around the Christian celebration of the Ascension. During the celebration, villages would march around the commons, looking for fences, hedges, and other illegal encumbrances and enclosures that had been secretly erected there; when they found such affronts to their shared space, they smashed and destroyed them.
I found myself unable to resist romanticizing the image of everyday people marching about, removing the barriers to places that were held in common. As a mark of my solidarity with efforts to promote open access to scholarly and creative commons and as an indicator of my interest in removing the technological wickets and tangles that keep our silos of licensed resources from working more in concert with one another, I am renaming this blog from “Stephen Francoeur’s Stuff” (a massively unimaginative name) to “Beating the Bounds.”
At lunchtime today, I just started reading Bound by Law? Tales from the Public Domain, a fantastic comic book by Keith Aoki, James Boyle, and Jennifer Jenkins. I haven’t finished it yet, but I already know that the next time I teach my 3-credit course, Information Research in the Social Sciences and Humanities, I’m going to have my students read it. It’s a great way to introduce folks to some rather thorny questions and legal concepts. By looking at the headaches that documentary filmmakers have to contend with as they decide what can and can’t make the cut in their films, the authors of Bound by Law? illustrate quickly and clearly the way that copyright law has increasingly become a burden on artistic expression.
The book’s publisher, Duke University Press, has thoughtfully made the full-text of the book freely online in various formats. If you want to grab the PDF for the book, you can do so below.