6/2/2010 7:21

Single Authors

A large piece of our legal and economic culture is based on the fiction that a single person (whether a real or fictive person) can be assigned authorship and ownership of a writing. We call the ownership right the "copyright" and the writings we've renamed "intellectual property".

This was not the case among our ancestors. Community and evolving authorship was natural and assumed. Presumably only those changes and additions which improved the work would be received by the community; all others would be lost.

Our reality is the same; we have not changed so much as the changes in our law of property might suggest.

I recall Dr. William Naumann demurring when I asked to confirm a quotation from one of his lectures. "The words might be mine," he admitted, "but it was certainly not an original thought." (I should note that I have not confirmed the exact wording of the demurral.)

This is always so. Someone -- several people, no doubt -- suggested that it takes 10 years to come up with one original idea of your own; 5 years to fully assimilate another's original idea. Most ideas are not truly original at all, but are rearrangements or new presentations of existing and even well-known thoughts.

Such rearrangements are very valuable to us. They are the engine of intellectual progress. But they are also intrinsically community actions. You juxtapose 2 old ideas in a new way, then I see an application to an old problem, an after that someone else finds an elegant solution to supercede my klutzy combination of ideas ... and so we move forward.

Who owns that elegant solution? In our time and culture, that "someone else" does. Only that "someone else" reaps the economic reward. But you and I were also contributors to this solution, and so were those who passed along the 2 old ideas, those who earlier had identified that old problem, those who shared your juxtaposition with me, those who commented on my new application of the ideas to that old problem.

It was, in reality, a community development becoming a community benefit. It is only a legal and economic fiction to assign ownership of the result of this process to the one who touched it last.

Why do we engage in this particular fiction? Past societies engaged in different fictions for community authorship. (An author would commonly place the writing in the mouth of a famous historical character for example: The Testament of Abraham.)

Our choice of fictions is based on our common understanding of what drives our society forward. We hold the notion that progress is founded on economic self-interest. Faithful to that concept, we choose a fiction which creates an economic self-interest for engaging in community intellectual development.

I am not entirely comfortable with using fictions such as this to guide our play of the actual reality game. It seems to me that actual reality is, or ought to be, a better basis for play than such common fiction. My discomfort is tempered somewhat by the observation that while this fiction has shaped participation in communal intellectual processes, it certainly has not squelched people's willingness to participate.

Many, indeed, believe that their particpation is motivated entirely by the hope of personal gain which our cultural fiction dangles before them. Others actively engage in counter-fictive activities, such as intentionally communal development processes and "public" licensing. The rest of us are enjoying the fruits of this very communal actual reality which is played by dancing around a peculiar cultural fiction.