Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Common As Air: Revolution, Art, And Ownership

by Lewis Hyde
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Lewis Hyde is one of those non-famous writers who is eagerly and profitably read by the famous with bigger audiences (ecologist Paul Shepard is another.) So as a kind of preview of ideas that others will eventually repackage, here’s the undiluted original.

Calling Hyde original is ironic, given one premise of this book, which is that almost nothing is really original: everybody “stands on the shoulders of giants” (as Newton famously said, though he stole the phrase.)For Hyde, that idea is both a premise and the desired outcome: that after being expressed, ideas are no longer the sole property of anyone. They are for the good of all—for others to use and build on.

This, Hyde reminds us, is the Constitutional reason for copyright—to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” It is to encourage innovators, but also to make things available for what Hyde calls the cultural commons. His support for this is in a kind of Zinnian alternate history, especially in the views of—tea partiers beware!—the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin in particular. Hyde shows how to them the free flow of information and invention was not abstract—access was often subject to monopoly in the 18th century, but it was necessary for the commonwealth they intended to make of America.

In his prized earlier book, The Gift, Hyde liberated writers and other artists from feeling that if they didn’t write solely for money, they are blockheads. Talent is a gift, and the fruits of talent are gifts to others and to posterity.

In this book he looks at this from the public point of view. This book is especially relevant now because of new complexities: on the one hand, the Internet enables file-sharing as well as cutting and pasting anything, and computers enable sampling of other people’s original songs and art. And on the other hand, big corporations have pursued tighter copyright protection over more things (like genes, and even elements of somebody else’s body) while courts increasingly interpret law to favor absolute private rights, leading to the virtual abandonment of “fair use” protections.

Not surprisingly, he looks with favor on the Creative Commons licenses, which use claim-and-release (claim your copyright, but release the rights under circumstances you define) to “allow millions of works to circulate without the permissions-and-fees aphasia that automatically attends all over copyrighted material.”

Hyde provides examples of what he considers egregious misuses and unintended consequences of today’s copyright practice, and I find I agree with some but not all. I look at this from both sides now. As a writer who is exploited enough thank you, with way below par pay and my-way-or-the-highway demands for rights, I am suspicious of attempts to modify copyright as yet another capitalist plot. But I’m a blogger, too, and obviously I’m not in it for the big bucks. I’ve always been inspired to create by making it a gift, and I believe in the value of the commons.

Further, as a writer I’ve run into frustrating Catch-22 situations (wait, is that copyrighted?) in (for example) writing a play about real figures in recent history, in which I wanted to accurately portray them by quoting from their books in dialogue. It’s such an uncertain area that copyright holders don’t know what to do, and producers don’t want to take the chance of being sued. So, in sum, it’s a real mess right now.

Even as a book reviewer I've seen the effects.  Hyde mentions the example of the James Joyce estate, notoriously greedy and litigious, and their demands on Stanford scholar Carol Shloss, who was forced "to remove 40 percent of the citations in her book about Joyce's daughter Lucia (whereupon reviewers criticized the work for lacking evidence.")  I was one of the reviewers, in the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review.  Though I made references to the legal and other problems with the Joyce estate twice in the review ("Objections by James Joyce's grandson forced Shloss to delete hard-won material and rewrite this book several times. Among those she thanks in her acknowledgments are several lawyers." " Many of the problems this book presents to readers are probably due to the dearth of data and coyness created by legal action"), in the end I had to review the book as published, and though I praised much of it and called it a heroic enterprise, I did fault its narrative clarity, organization and "a daunting quantity of her own speculations, surmises and unconvincingly supported suppositions."   The moral of this story, besides the perils of publishing under these circumstances, is Hyde's own--apart from privacy concerns, the public is poorer for information withheld.

Hyde doesn’t deny writers etc. the right to make a living from their work. He is arguing essentially for balance, which today is about as radical as you can get. All of this forms the topic, but the pleasures of this book are in the journey—the history, the stories (like the “folk tradition” Bob Dylan got many of his songs from) and simply Hyde’s unique writing voice. Along the way you will learn how Franklin studied the Gulf Stream, the meaning of “lucubrations” and why James Joyce is in danger of disappearing from literary history (I think I've given that one away.)

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