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Copyright: How should ownership be structured?

Marketplace Staff Aug 24, 2010

Copyright: How should ownership be structured?

Marketplace Staff Aug 24, 2010


Bob Dylan singing “The Times They Are A-Changin'”>

Bill Radke: Ah, Dylan — love him or hate him, he is an American original… Isn’t he? Well, actually, Bob Dylan will be the first to tell you he’s more of a borrower. He has always borrowed from the music around him — old folk songs, blues, sea shanties. It all sort of mixed in his head — he would copy a lyric here, a chord change there and then, add a little something of his own.

Well, that is not theft, says my next guest. That is the way the cultural commons is supposed to work.

Lewis Hyde’s book is called “Common As Air,” and he worries that we are privatizing our common heritage, thanks to the rise of intellectual property rights.

Lewis Hyde: It used to be the case that you had to register to get a copyright. But that’s no longer the case. Everything that you create is automatically copyrighted. Your grocery list belongs to you. If I copied it without your permission, technically, you could take me to court.

Radke: Well, should Bob Dylan and his record company not own his songs for a good long time?

Hyde: I think that artists should own their work. The problem is how long the ownership should What’s been happening in the last 50 years, especially, is an enclosure of the commons of the mind, as it were. When this country was founded, you got a 14-year property right in your writings. Now, a corporation gets 95 years. I get, if I live long enough, over 100 years.

Radke: Well, the argument for intellectual property rights is that, first of all, innovators deserve to profit from their work. And also, that that profit encourages more innovation. Is there an economic argument going the other direction, in favor of holding more in common?

Hyde: You know, often people think of common ownership and private ownership as at odds with one another. But in fact, they can work in tandem. Famous example in this country is that roads and waterways, navigable waterways, are held in common so that you can have commerce. A second example is the protocols that operate the Internet. The great innovation in the 1990s was to throw them open to common ownership. Such that nobody had a stake in them and everybody could use them. And as a result, you got tremendous commerce on top of that. So, one wants to think of the places where common ownership enables commerce and places where one or the other should better be the rule.

Radke: We’re talking about the right number of years for a copyright or a patent, but it sounds like you’re getting at something more philosophical about what it means to be people and community.

Hyde: Part of the point of my book is to go back to the founding generation and to understand why they thought we might do this. And one of their great concerns was that we were trying to set up a democratically governed nation. And in such a nation, you want to be very wary of giving people power over expression. They wanted people to be able to act publicly in a scientific community, to act publicly politically. And they thought that the more private control you have over art and ideas, the less you are able to be a public person.

Radke: Yeah, Ben Franklin wasn’t interested in holding his ideas privately, and he didn’t think that’s the way it ought to work.

Hyde: Franklin got involved in trying to understand how electricity works. It was always the case that you could not own a natural fact. So Franklin figures out, for example, that electricity has polarity — he’s known as the discoverer of this. But he couldn’t possibly own it. You can’t own natural facts.

One thing that’s happened recently is that we have changed the rule such that biotech companies can own parts of the human genome. This is a great change. In Franklin’s day you couldn’t do it, and rightly so.

Franklin also was an inventor. He invented the lightning rod, he invented bifocals. And he could have, but never did, take a patent on these. This is an old ideal called “civic republicanism.” People often say, “Well, Benjamin Franklin had a lot of money by then,” which is true, he was a very successful printer. But why do you have a lot of money? What is the end of becoming wealthy? In those days, the end was to turn yourself toward public service, and that was Franklin’s ideal.

Radke: Lewis, do you mind if copy your book and represent it as my own.

Hyde laughs

Hyde: Well, there’s two different pieces of that. One is attribution and one is ownership. I don’t mind if you copy it, but you should attribute me correctly.

Radke: Fair enough. Lewis Hyde’s book is called “Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership.” Lewis, thank you.

Hyde: You’re welcome.

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