Friday, October 15, 2010

The Public Domain by James Boyle

An excellent introduction to the very important world of intellectual property rights. Centered on US issues, Boyle presents a balanced overview while at the same time arguing for a particular position (the subtitle of the book, Enclosing the Commons of the Mind, might be an indicator of where he stands). I liked this book because I knew almost nothing about intellectual property issues and now feel I at least have a sense of the history and current issues. Consistently, the entire work is available for free online.
Boyle’s main positions are:
1) Intellectual property (IP) is not the same as physical property, so when we discuss rights we should be cautious about using analogies between to two to justify our decisions.
2) There should be IP rights, but they should also be limited to ensure that creators can still quote, parody, criticize, and build upon the works of others.

To quote Boyle discussing his various proposals:
"We could sum them up thus: do not apply identical assumptions to physical and intellectual property. Focus on both the inputs to and the outputs of the creative process; protecting the latter may increase the cost of the former. Look both at the role of the public domain and the commons of cultural and scientific material and at the need to provide incentives for creativity and distribution through exclusive rights. More rights will not automatically produce more innovation. Indeed, we should confine rights as narrowly as possible while still providing the desired result. Look at the empirical evidence before and after increasing the level of protection. Pay attention to the benefits as well as the costs of the new technologies and the flowering of creativity they enable.
To me, these points seem bland, boring, obvious—verging on tautology or pablum. To many believers in the worldview I have described, they are either straightforward heresy or a smokescreen for some real, underlying agenda—which is identified as communism, anarchism, or, somewhat confusingly, both."

One also reads of an interesting story of theft/borrowing/collaboration/creative inspiration with the history and origins of a song: George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People this was written by a duo called “The Legendary K.O.” who wrote lyrics to the tune of Kanye West’s “Gold digger” which were inspired by West’s statement on a TV program with a shocked Mike Myers. “The Legendary K.O. reached for Kanye West’s song in order to criticize Mr. Bush, they found themselves sampling Jamie Foxx, who was copying Ray Charles, who was copying the Bailey Gospel Singers, who themselves may have borrowed their theme from an older spiritual.” So much for originality! But we should remember it is rare if not unparalleled for an artist to create from nothing.

I’ll end by quoting an insightful part of the book that asks the reader to imagine we might be losing if we make IP rights too limiting using the Internet as an example:
"Imagine you knew nothing of the Net. (Those of you who are over twenty-five may actually be able to remember when you knew nothing of the Net.) Imagine that you are sitting in a room somewhere discussing—perhaps with a group of government bureaucrats or some policy analysts from the Commerce Department—whether to develop this particular network. The scientists are enthusiastic. They talk of robustness and dumb networks with smart terminals. They talk of TCP/IP and HTML and decentralized systems that run on open protocols, so that anyone can connect to this network and use it any way they want to. You, of course, know nothing about the truly astounding outburst of creativity and communication that would actually flower on such a system, that would flower precisely because it is so open and no one country or company controls it or the protocols that run it. You do not know that millions of people worldwide will assemble the greatest factual reference work the world has ever seen on this network—often providing their information for free out of some bizarre love of sharing. You do not know about or or the newspapers of the world online, or search engines, automatic page translation, plug-ins, or browsers. You cannot imagine free or open-source software being assembled by thousands of programmers worldwide. E-mail is only a dimly understood phenomenon to you. Teenagers in your world have never heard of instant messaging—a nostalgic thought.
As the scientists talk, it becomes clear that they are describing a system without centralized direction or policing. Imagine that your decision is framed by the logic of control I have described in this chapter, by the fears that the content industry has had for at least the last thirty years—by the logic of the suit they brought in Sony. Imagine, in other words, that we make the up-or-down decision to develop the Internet based on the values and fears that our copyright policy now exhibits, and that the content industries have exhibited for thirty years. There is no way, no way at all, that a network like it would ever be developed. It would be strangled at birth. You would be told by the lawyers and policy wonks that it would be a haven for piracy and illegality. (And it would be, of course—though it would also be much, much more.) You would be told that the system needed to be designed to be safe for commerce or it would never attract investment, that it would need to be controlled and centralized for it to be reliable, that it would need to be monitored to stop it being a hotbed of crime. With the copyright lawyers in the room, you would end up designing something that looked like cable TV or Minitel. The Internet would never get off the ground.
The Internet is safe now, of course, because it developed so fast that it was a reality before people had time to be afraid of it. But it should give us pause that if we had our current guiding set of policy goals in place, our assumption that cheaper copying means we need greater regulation, we would never have allowed it to flourish. As Jessica Litman points out, we are increasingly making our decisions about technology and communications policy inside copyright law. We are doing so according to the logic of control that I have sketched out in this chapter. But the logic of control is a partial logic. It blinds us to certain possibilities, ones that have huge and proven potential—look at the Internet."



Post a Comment

<< Home