Thomas Jefferson on Ideas as “Property”

Nearly done with Lawrence Lessig’s Remix. In the final chapter, Lessig offers this great quote by Thomas Jefferson:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. (p. 290).

The full quote can be found in a letter Jefferson wrote to Isaac McPherson on August 13, 1813, and is reprinted in volume 6 of The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh (Washington: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1905). The letter can also be found online on a site from the University of Chicago Press.

In Defense of Amateurism on the Web

Here’s another quote from Lawrence Lessig’s Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy that caught my attention:

Just as Jefferson romanticized the yeoman farmer working a small plot of land in an economy disciplined by hard work and careful planning, just as Sousa romanticized the amateur musician, I mean to romanticize the yeoman creator. In each case, the skeptic could argue that the product is often better produced elsewhere–that large farms are more efficient, or that filters on publishing mean published works are better. But in each case, the skeptic misses something critically important: how the discipline of the yeoman’s life changes him or her as a citizen. The Long Tail enables a wider range of people to speak. Whatever they say, that’s a very good thing. Speaking teaches the speaker even if it just makes noise. (p. 132)

Lessig on Copyright Newly Expanding Control Over Amateurs

Here’s a choice nugget from Lawrence Lessig’s book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy:

Second, digital technologies also change how RW [read-write] culture and copyright interact. Because every use of [a digital] creative work technically produces a copy, every use of [a digital] creative work technically triggers copyright law. And while many of these uses might be fair use, or uses licensed, expressly or implicitly, by the copyright owner, the critical point to recognize is that this is still a vast change to the history of American copyright law. For the first time, the law regulates ordinary citizens generally. For the first time, it reaches beyond the professional to control the amateur–to subject the amateur to a control by the law that the law historically reserved to professionals.

This is the most important point to recognize about the relationship between the law and RW culture. For the first time, the law reaches and regulates this culture. Not because Congress deliberated and decided that this form of creativity needed regulation, but simply because the architecture of copyright law interacted with the architecture of digital technology to produce a massive expansion in the reach of the law. (p. 103)


Remix Culture and Lawrence Lessig

I’m finally getting around to reading something longer than an article or blog post by Lawrence Lessig. In preparation for my fall course I’ll be teaching here at Baruch College, “Information Research in the Social Sciences and Humanities,” (the course site from spring 2010 is still up), I’m trying to find more material that will make remix culture a theme for the course. This three-credit course has essentially the same learning goals you might create for a one-shot course for a first-year composition class; the real difference is that we get to take a deep dive into topics that we would only just skim in the one-shot.

This fall, my class will be part of the learning communities program here at Baruch, which means the twenty-two first-year students in my class will also be block scheduled so they are in other classes together. As part of this program, I am teamed up with another professor teaching one of the classes the students are taking, an introduction to ethics class in the philosophy department. The point of contact between our two classes will be issues of ethics; while the philosophy class is distinctly aimed at approaching ethics at the theoretical level, my class will delve into applied ethics. Specifically, I want my students to delve into the ethics of information use and reuse by having them try to delineate the boundaries between sharing, remix, reuse, homage, collage, plagiarism, originality, etc.

The music of Greg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, will be the springboard for some of the discussions I hope to have. Gillis is known for building songs out of hundreds of samples of other songs. Last spring, my class talked about this for one highly productive day following our viewing of a documentary that features his work (RIP: A Remix Manifesto). I’m now reading Lawrence Lessig’s 2008 book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, to see if there is a chapter we might read in class. When I am done with that book this week, I hope to dive into Henry Jenkins 2006 book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, for more ideas.