A MacArthur Fellow constructs an elegant argument opposing the modern drive to privatize our common cultural heritage.
Relying heavily on available scraps of knowledge and expression in the culture surrounding them to fashion their ballads and sermons, could a songwriter like Bob Dylan or a preacher like Martin Luther King Jr. emerge today, where the range of “private” property has been extended and the public domain has shrunk? Human knowledge, Hyde (Art and Politics/Kenyon College; Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, 1998, etc.) writes, is different from physical property. It’s more usefully compared to an 18th-century agricultural commons, where a bundle of rights, institutions and customs preserved the land for communal use. Just as the first enclosure movement walled off the land and converted it to private use, so too further enclosures—an extension of copyright and patent carrying a presumption of exclusion, an impulse to privatize academic science, drinking water, seeds, naturally occurring antibiotics, even words like “I have a dream”—threaten to choke off public discourse and creativity. Against the push of monied interests, especially the entertainment and biotech industries, Hyde marshals an unexpected and particularly eloquent lobby: America’s founders, including Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin, all of whom took an expansive view about claims to cultural ownership. They championed a civic republicanism, where property was not an end in itself, but rather a precondition for freeing the individual “to produce something for the common Benefit,” as Franklin wrote. Loathing monopoly and rejecting the notions of isolated genius, the founders understood creative work as collaborative and dependent on the free flow of ideas. “Intellectual property,” the relatively new term lawyers assign to the intangible creations of the human mind and imagination, would hardly seem the matter for a book as revelatory and engaging as Hyde produces here, but citizens of a democracy relinquish this topic to free-market buccaneers at our own peril.
An old way of thinking about the ownership of art and ideas smartly revived.