common as air: the commons snare

There’s lots of scholarly interest in the commons these days.  The free software movement has led many to call for the broadening of the commons from software to all information and culture-based production: music, movies, books, journals, and so forth.  Many argue that intellectual property can’t meaningfully be treated as “property” – it should be free.  I disagree (with lots of qualifications: e.g., it’s up to authors and outlets) – though I think this is a fascinating topic (and I’ll follow up with a future post).

So, one of my pet peeves is when an author strongly advocates for the information commons (e.g., that the peer-to-peer sharing of all music is perfectly reasonable) but then their own book itself is not in the commons.  Here’s one example (there are many others):  Hyde, Lewis, 2010.  Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership. Farrar, Straus, Giroux.  Here’s an interview with the author a few years ago (where the commons are discussed).  A review of the book.  A Creative Commons interview.  Here’s the book talk at the Berkman Center (watch the first five-six minutes and you’ll get a sense).

(I may well be wrong, perhaps the above book indeed is out there in the commons somewhere. If so, I need to pull this post.)

Here’s also Lewis Hyde’s 1979 book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property.  This book inspired the organizers of Burning Man.

Thankfully some of the commons advocates, like James Boyle, also walk the talk and post their books into the commons.  Here’s his The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. Yale University Press.

Bottom line: if your book advocates the commons (for others), then it should be in the commons. Seems reasonable.  (Sorry for the rant.)

Written by teppo

January 9, 2012 at 2:54 am

6 Responses

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  1. The book is sold on platforms that enforce anti-commons technology.



    January 9, 2012 at 4:19 am

  2. Precisely.

    Not to put too fine a point on this but will anyways. I have no problem whatsoever buying a book (I have bought many of the books we’ve discussed on this blog) – I think the presses and publishing houses serve a very valuable function and authors deserve their due. And yes – thankfully there’s also lots of free stuff in the commons as well – that model is fantastic and important (obviously the domain matters).

    But if a book’s premise is that the information commons should be widely applied (or, that the right to, say, stop peer-to-peer sharing of other’s music or books is wrong), then at least put your book out into the commons. That’s all. For now.



    January 9, 2012 at 4:36 am

  3. I’m not sure you logic is as solid as it at first sounds. Dante argued for writing in ordinary Italian, but he wrote the argument in Latin. It is entirely justified to make an argument against a rule in a forum that requires you to obey it. You can leave your gun at the door and still argue for the right to bear arms. You argue against drug prohibition without smoking weed. You can publish a book for the commons with a publisher that requires you to keep it out of the commons.



    January 9, 2012 at 8:03 am

  4. In Michael Crichton’s 1983 work, Electronic Life, he said that the inherent copiability of the new media removed the utlity from copyrights and royalty payments. He said that an author or artist should get their money once up front and move on to the next project. He, of course, cashed those royalty checks. I have, too, even as I gave the multifaceted problem some thought over the years.


    Michael E. Marotta

    January 9, 2012 at 6:34 pm

  5. @Thomas:

    Why not write a freely available book or essay, rather than contract for a published book? Is it because the author wants to be paid, or because they think the publisher will let the reach a wider audience (than the Internet)?



    January 10, 2012 at 2:27 pm

  6. I get the sentiment, but advocating for a commons is not an either/or proposition. You can be for a limited copyright, for instance, thereby justifying a limited ownership before putting the work in the commons. Overall, I don’t have the same picture as you; I find very few writers suggest there is no room at all for intellectual property.



    January 10, 2012 at 3:37 pm

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