This semester we read selections from one of my favorite books on the pitfalls of theorizing of intellectual property–James Boyle’s Shamans, Software, & Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society. Drawing on examples from a diverse range of topics including genetics, fiduciary trust, and artificial intelligence, Boyle demonstrates how classical liberal theory attempts to resolve the tensions between public and private spheres through an appeal to romantic notions of authorship. James Boyle is currently the William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law and the co-founder of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School. We were delighted to have him answer a handful of student questions and his responses are featured here.
Copygrounds: Do you think contemporary technological developments and social practices have devalued the notion of individual authorship to a significant degree? That is to say, does the emergence of the Internet, “remix culture”, file-sharing, and other collaborative systems signal a departure from romantic notions of authorship?
James Boyle: I think the effect is complex. The proliferation of technologies that allow the creation and sharing of content, the ability to write a blog and at least believe that one is speaking to a potentially global audience, all of these things put the notion of authorship within reach of more people than ever before. On the other hand, the types of content that you describe don’t necessarily embody the romantic vision of creation ex nihilo — Still, they can embody some kind of romance. The screaming bobbing fans at a Girltalk concert certainly think he’s some kind of artist. And Kanye West clearly has a very high opinion of himself…. There is still the sense of creativity as an expression of some inner element of being — even when it is done using fragments of other people’s works.
Copygrounds: Is the romantic notion of authorship, with its emphasis on individual creative expression, a uniquely Western cultural characteristic? Are there other societies and cultures which do a better job of acknowledging the collective nature of cultural and informational production?
James Boyle: I am wary of these kinds of generalizations. Yes, on the one hand, there is evidence that some other cultures look at literary production differently. William Alford’s book “To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense” postulates a fundamentally different kind of cultural creativity — Alford quotes Chinese writers who argue that since their written language is made up of ideograms that are derived from pictograms, to claim ownership of your words is like claiming ownership of the world — ludicrous. But I suspect that every culture has a strain that valorizes individual artistic creation and another strain that stresses creativity’s roots in the past, and in multiple communities.
Copygrounds: As an intellectual and an author, do you ever find it difficult to reconcile your own views on authorship with the institutional expectations and professional demands of being an academic?
James Boyle: Yes. Great question.
Ah, well perhaps you wanted more than that. I am as afflicted and uplifted by the romantic vision as anyone — as I said in the book, the romantic vision has such power because it does express a profound truth (not the truth) about our relationship to our creations, about our hopes for iconoclastic, disruptive creativity. So I don’t view Shamans as a book that says “Its wrong!” I view Shamans as a book that says “We are structuring our image of creativity around this vision and it is only part of the truth!” So the cognitive dissonance isn’t that I don’t want to create, to be novel, to transform perceptions, to make something new and I am in a profession that presumes all those. It is that I am trying to mediate the tension between the romantic vision and its opposites — in life as well as in print.
Copygrounds: What happens to the romantic notion of authorship in areas where there is increasing interactivity? For example, what happens to the notion of individual authorship in video games designed by teams of people and actualized by thousands, if not millions, of individual players?
James Boyle: The same thing, I think, that happens in physics articles that are written by literally thousands of scientists working at a supercollider (see Biagioli & Gallison on scientific authorship) and that happened in the auteur theory of filmmaking — where we ignore the creativity contributed by actors, cameramen etc. and say the author is only the director. The answer is that we struggle to jam creativity into a box that often cannot contain it and pay some price in truthfulness as we do so.