In my last post I suggested that America’s revolutionary generation approached the issue of intellectual property through their understanding of, and antipathy toward, monopolies. To see that this was in fact the case one need only read the letters that Jefferson and Madison exchanged in the late 1780s, when the Constitution was being framed.
There’s only one way that commercial broadcasters can get away with their shameless chutzpah: as gatekeepers to the airwaves, they’ve got serious political power, enough to lord it over a Congress that is too craven to rein them in. This thought is prompted by the story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (July 25, 2005) describing how broadcasters are outraged, just outraged, that the new satellite radio networks, XM and Sirius, are actually providing their own localized content! Can you imagine anything so unfair?
The President says he wants Supreme Court justices who will interpret the Constitution as it is written, not according to what they wish it says. It’s a good speech line, but I don’t think the President really means it.
How did America’s revolutionary generation imagine what we now call “intellectual property”? My last post gave the background for one answer: they inherited a tradition in which art and ideas were thought of as res communes, common things.
A second answer may be less obvious now but it was deeply influential at the time our Constitution was written. To the framers of that document, copyright and patent were not property rights, they were monopoly privileges.
The entertainment industry is very good at framing questions about intellectual property. Here is one of their typical assertions: “There’s no difference in our mind between stealing a pair of shoes in a shoe store and stealing music on-line. A theft is a theft is a theft.”
If in fact there is a difference between downloading a digital MP3 file and stealing a pair of shoes this “theft frame” neatly erases it and seals the erasure with a tautology.
The McBurney YMCA was a funky remnant on 23rd Street across from the legendary Chelsea Hotel, which was its atmospheric kin. Retired garment workers played handball in tee shirts that could have done service in the Eakins era. The running track hung out over the basketball court so that you couldn’t shoot from the corners; and the machinery of modern fitness sat uneasily in rooms designed for what was called, at the time, “physical culture.”
When I look at the online world these days, I feel like I’m watching one of those old nature films in which an unseen narrator excitedly whispers as a baby bird miraculously pecks its way through the eggshell and announces itself to the world. Who is this fragile new creature? I feel the same sense of amazement as I contemplate the new modes of expression made possible by digital technologies. What is this podcasting, this video-blogging and these new public-domain repositories?
Two earlier posts (here and here) described the useful detail that Nobel laureate John Sulston has brought to the intuition that we should treat the human genome as a commons, not as territory to be exploited by private entrepreneurs.
But why do we need detailed and practical arguments of the kind that Sulston provides? Isn’t it simpler to say that the genome is sacred, and that we don’t commercialize it simply because it is wrong to traffic in sacred things?
A variety of fascinating new wikis have appeared in recent months, suggesting that the power of this platform for ubiquitous participation is only beginning to be seen. It is also a sign that the make-your-own culture is taking off, a theme that finds support in other developments that I will discuss tomorrow
John Sulston’s book The Common Thread is his account of the public project that sequenced the human genome. In my posting from a few days ago I outlined three ways in which Sulston’s account informs the intuition that knowledge of the genome should be treated as a commons. I want to continue that line of inquiry today, focusing on the difference between pure and applied science.
Why are city streets and sidewalks critical to the success of Main Street businesses? Why has the Internet proven to be such a powerful stimulus to the economy? And what about all the social, civic and personal benefits that flow from these resources? Economics tends to ignore the actual value of free expression, neighborliness and informal sharing, but shouldn’t our public policies recognize these genres of non-market ?value? as worthwhile in their own right?
Why should knowledge about the human genome be treated as a commons and not as a property that those who develop it might own? After all, it takes time, money, expertise, and hard work to create this knowledge; shouldn’t these be rewarded? And wouldn’t the promise of reward provide an incentive that might speed the work up, and target it toward useful ends?
In yesterday’s posting I described the great catalog of cultural debts that Bob Dylan offers in his recent memoir, and his sense of how largely any I, any self, is made of the others that have informed it. Thus are great artists not private individual selves, but common selves, and willingly so.
Today I wonder if the blogosphere can help fill out the catalog of Dylan’s debts. Can we collectively make a list of what he has borrowed from traditional sources?
Bob Dylan’s recent autobiographical Chronicles offers a good demonstration of the old saw that great artists steal — though in fact, I wish we’d get rid of the theft image here. Let us say instead that great artists are commoners. They enter and live in that vast inheritance, the cultural commons.
Would it be possible to map Dylan’s own debts to that heritage? He himself tells us a lot about where to look.
Some go to dine, others to eat. I’m an eater. I get edgy in establishments in which a meal costs more than the price of a haircut — a Chinatown haircut, — and where I have to worry about which is the proper fork. The celebrity chef thing is lost on me. The writing is just awful, too. Take the inflated prose of rock reportage a la Rolling Stone, gussy it up with Fine Arts 13 affect and society gossip, and you pretty much have the genre. Forget eating. It makes you want to barf.
In yesterday’s blog, I described how the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 broke up Native American tribal lands. It made citizens of those Indians willing to live “separate and apart” while rendering invisible before the law any “commoners” who hoped to preserve traditional patterns of native land tenure.
Is it sometimes illegal, or extralegal, to be a commoner?
My mother’s second husband grew up on a farm in West Texas. He was libertine but not liberal. He railed about the men in town — a summer resort — who spent the winter on unemployment, and he thought criminals had it coming, the worse the better. He also revered FDR. (Liberals today who don’t grasp the connection are showing why they are the minority party.)
This trend is not receiving much notice, but the “ownership society” is quietly making some very deep inroads indeed. A fierce land grab is now underway to own and control some of the most basic building blocks of life and matter. These include man-made genomes of artificial species, purified versions of elements of the Periodic Table, nano-scale formulations of medicinal herbs, genetically created hybrids of living and non-living matter, and much else.