Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership

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Common as Air offers a stirring defense of our cultural commons, that vast store of art and ideas we have inherited from the past that continues to enrich our present. Suspicious of the current idea that all creative work is "intellectual property," Lewis Hyde turns to America's founding fathers—men like John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson—in search of other ways to value the fruits of human wit and imagination. What he discovers is a rich tradition in which knowledge was assumed to be a commonwealth, not a private preserve.

For the founding fathers, democratic self-governance itself demanded open and easy access to ideas. So did the growth of creative communities, such as that of eighteenth-century science. And so did the flourishing of public persons, the very actors whose "civic virtue" brought the nation into being.

In this lively, carefully argued, and well-documented book, Hyde brings the past to bear on present matters, shedding fresh light on everything from the Human Genome Project to Bob Dylan's musical roots. Common as Air allows us to stand on the shoulders of America's revolutionary giants and to see beyond today's narrow debates over cultural ownership. What it reveals is nothing less than an inspiring vision of how to reclaim the commonwealth of art and ideas that we were meant to inherit.

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About the author

Lewis Hyde is the author of The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, This Error Is the Sign of Love, and Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (FSG, 1998). A MacArthur Fellow and former director of undergraduate creative writing at Harvard University, Hyde teaches during the fall semesters at Kenyon College, where he is the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing. During the rest of the year he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a faculty associate at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Published on
Aug 17, 2010
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Pages
320
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ISBN
9781429979641
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Social History
Law / Intellectual Property / Copyright
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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What can and can't be copied is a matter of law, but also of aesthetics, culture, and economics. The act of copying, and the creation and transaction of rights relating to it, evokes fundamental notions of communication and censorship, of authorship and ownership - of privilege and property. This volume conceives a new history of copyright law that has its roots in a wide range of norms and practices. The essays reach back to the very material world of craftsmanship and mechanical inventions of Renaissance Italy where, in 1469, the German master printer Johannes of Speyer obtained a five-year exclusive privilege to print in Venice and its dominions. Along the intellectual journey that follows, we encounter John Milton who, in his 1644 Areopagitica speech 'For the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing', accuses the English parliament of having been deceived by the 'fraud of some old patentees and monopolizers in the trade of bookselling' (i.e. the London Stationers' Company). Later revisionary essays investigate the regulation of the printing press in the North American colonies as a provincial and somewhat crude version of European precedents, and how, in the revolutionary France of 1789, the subtle balance that the royal decrees had established between the interests of the author, the bookseller, and the public, was shattered by the abolition of the privilege system. Contributions also address the specific evolution of rights associated with the visual and performing arts. These essays provide essential reading for anybody interested in copyright, intellectual history and current public policy choices in intellectual property. The volume is a companion to the digital archive Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC): www.copyrighthistory.org.
Copyright reflects far more than economic interests. Embedded within conflicts over royalties and infringement are cultural values—about race, class, access, ownership, free speech, and democracy—which influence how rights are determined and enforced. Questions of legitimacy—of what constitutes “intellectual property” or “fair use,” and of how to locate a precise moment of cultural creation—have become enormously complicated in recent years, as advances in technology have exponentially increased the speed of cultural reproduction and dissemination.

In Copyrights and Copywrongs, Siva Vaidhyanathan tracks the history of American copyright law through the 20th century, from Mark Twain’s vehement exhortations for “thick” copyright protection, to recent lawsuits regarding sampling in rap music and the “digital moment,” exemplified by the rise of Napster and MP3 technology. He argues persuasively that in its current punitive, highly restrictive form, American copyright law hinders cultural production, thereby contributing to the poverty of civic culture.

In addition to choking cultural expression, recent copyright law, Vaidhyanathan argues, effectively sanctions biases against cultural traditions which differ from the Anglo-European model. In African-based cultures, borrowing from and building upon earlier cultural expressions is not considered a legal trespass, but a tribute. Rap and hip hop artists who practice such “borrowing” by sampling and mixing, however, have been sued for copyright violation and forced to pay substantial monetary damages. Similarly, the oral transmission of culture, which has a centuries-old tradition within African American culture, is complicated by current copyright laws. How, for example, can ownership of music, lyrics, or stories which have been passed down through generations be determined? Upon close examination, strict legal guidelines prove insensitive to the diverse forms of cultural expression prevalent in the United States, and reveal much about the racialized cultural values which permeate our system of laws. Ultimately, copyright is a necessary policy that should balance public and private interests but the recent rise of “intellectual property” as a concept have overthrown that balance. Copyright, Vaidhyanathan asserts, is policy, not property.

Bringing to light the republican principles behind original copyright laws as well as present-day imbalances and future possibilities for freer expression and artistic equity, this volume takes important strides towards unraveling the complex web of culture, law, race, and technology in today's global marketplace.

Metaphors, moral panics, folk devils, Jack Valenti, Joseph Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, predictable irrationality, and free market fundamentalism are a few of the topics covered in this lively, unflinching examination of the Copyright Wars: the pitched battles over new technology, business models, and most of all, consumers. In Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, William Patry lays bare how we got to where we are: a bloated, punitive legal regime that has strayed far from its modest, but important roots. Patry demonstrates how copyright is a utilitarian government program--not a property or moral right. As a government program, copyright must be regulated and held accountable to ensure it is serving its public purpose. Just as Wall Street must serve Main Street, neither can copyright be left to a Reaganite "magic of the market." The way we have come to talk about copyright--metaphoric language demonizing everyone involved--has led to bad business and bad policy decisions. Unless we recognize that the debates over copyright are debates over business models, we will never be able to make the correct business and policy decisions. A centrist and believer in appropriately balanced copyright laws, Patry concludes that calls for strong copyright laws, just like calls for weak copyright laws, miss the point entirely: the only laws we need are effective laws, laws that further the purpose of encouraging the creation of new works and learning. Our current regime, unfortunately, creates too many bad incentives, leading to bad conduct. Just as President Obama has called for re-tooling and re-imagining the auto industry, Patry calls for a remaking of our copyright laws so that they may once again be respected.
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