Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lewis Hyde

It's been 30 years since social critic Lewis Hyde published The Gift, his landmark work defending the value of creativity in a culture increasingly governed by money and overrun with commodities. He recently published a new book Common as Air, only his second book since then, following The Gift and Trickster Makes This World, a captivating study of the role that mythological tricksters play in bringing to life the disruptive side of human imagination.

Common As Air is a lively commentary on the present state of copyright and the public domain in America. Hyde invokes history back to the Middle Ages, when vil­lagers enjoyed collective rights to common lands, and warns us against a new movement that would fence off large sectors of the public domain — in science, the arts, literature, and the entire world of knowledge — in order to exploit monopolies. He cites plenty of examples from Hollywood, the pharmaceutical industry, agribusiness, and the swarm of lobbyists who transform public knowledge into private preserves by manipulating laws for the protection of intellectual property. Last week in the New York Times Robert Darnton called Hyde's latest book "an eloquent and erudite plea for protecting our cultural patrimony from appropriation by commercial interests."

The excellent culture vulture site BOMBlog recently published a rare interview with Hyde and writer Chris Wallace about information, art and the ownership of the intangible.

CW: Steven Soderbergh, the great film director, called The Grey Album—DJ Danger Mouse’s totally illegal mash-up of The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s The Black Album—an “astonishing, amazing piece of work.” Will there be a bending of the system—if everyone starts working outside of the law, will the law have to curve to meet them?

LH: I guess I would go back to the question if The Grey Album is completely illegal and it is a puzzle. Reading the law literally it is a violation, however there is a tension in our legal history between the First Amendment and our copyright laws. Both of them are parts of the Constitution—the Constitution allows the congress to give exclusive rights to authors and so forth. But at the same time the First Amendment says we’re not allowed to make any law that interferes with expression. So these two powers are literally at odds with each other. Courts have thought that they way to reconcile this is through things like the Fair Use Doctrine. So, Fair Use is a set of rules by which you can use something without asking any permission or paying any fees. I mean, if you and I quoted a Beatles song in this interview we would not need to get permission because Fair Use allows for people to use it in the context of commentary and criticism. The problem with Fair Use is that it is not well understood. The people with money attack it, so we live in a culture of fear. And the law itself is vague as to what you can and can’t do.

Read more here.

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