Shamans, Software and Spleens

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POSTED: September 15, 2006

Author: James Boyle

Publisher: Harvard University Press

ISBN number: 978-0-674-80523-1

Year of publication: 1996

I found this book in the library almost at random, while looking for another book on another subject. I knew nothing about James Boyle, but the topic seemed interesting and a quick glance suggested that the writing was amusing. Picking the book up turns out to be one of those pivotally correct decisions.

The book has the subtitle law and the construction of the information age and it was written in 1996, when Boyle was Professor of Law at American University. However, rather than aging, as might be expected, it appears to have become more relevant. In part this is because Boyle adopts a historic perspective, seeking to show where the current intellectual property laws came from (using case law as examples) and the assumptions that it has both brought with it and helped foster.

His thesis is that we habitually view informations in one of (usually contradictory) two ways depending on the case we are considering and how we approach it: as private or public; as infinite or as a scarce resource; as concerned with free speech or with property rights. Behind all of these, both driving them and serving to justify them, is an unargued and unsupported view of the romantic author, who creates originality from the raw material of everyday reality.

This view grossly overcompensates “authors” (and here he demonstrates the need to include pharmaceutical companies and lawyers as well as “artists”) and vastly underestimates the importance of the commons – the public domain that needs to exist in its own right and also to serve as the raw materials from which future generations of authors can create.

When I had read it I googled Boyle because I wondered what his views are about the DCMA, digital downloads, open source, and other issues that have risen to prominence since the book was published. I found his Intellectual Property page and it turns out that he is heavily involved with the Creative Commons movement as well as several other similar bodies.

The book finishes with a full copy of the Bellagio Declaration which Boyle helped to draft. If anybody has read this far then I heartily recommend reading the Declaration; for the issues that it raises as much as the solutions that it proposes.