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August 24, 2010
A Historical View of the Cultural Commons
My father sent me a pointer to Robert Darnton's review in the NY Times titled "A Republic of Letters"
. The review discusses the new book by Lewis Hyde
(see also http://www.lewishyde.com/
) called Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership
As you can guess from the title and my interest, the topic of the book includes ownership of things that have come to be called intellectual property. In particular, Hyde's book is portrayed as a plea to protect our "cultural patrimony" (*cough*sexistmuch?*cough*) from "appropriation by commercial interests."
I'm sorry, guys, but that ship sailed a long time ago. I don't know whether you want to mark the passage of the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, the enactment of the DMCA, or MGM v Grokster as the important milestone - or even something else. The point is still that we've moved from the realm of public sharing of common heritage into a realm where everyone thinks it's natural for big corporate interests to own our genomes, our family histories, and every bloody other thing they can lay their hands upon.
From an academic perspective it's nice that Hyde can go as far back as the Middle Ages, and tie a belief in a thriving public sphere to the American founding fathers. But practically speaking? Who cares. The Cartel are not patriots - the only use they have for nations is as enforcement arms for their control regimes. Appeals to the lofty principles of dead intellectuals is just chaff in the wind.
If we're going to make arguments from history, which I think we should, then it's essential to point out the historical pragmatics - what did it mean for intellectual property to be shared as it was then, and what are we losing by locking it up now?
I suppose it's worth noting that I left academia for roughly these reasons, many years ago. I like good research and the challenge of connecting the dots within the vast streams of knowledge and discovery of the as-yet-unknown. But I also want to see those dots connected to practice, pragmatics, and with a clear relationship to today's reality.
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