Monday, March 13, 2006

Blogging James Boyle's Cultural Environmentalism at 10

Joe gratz has been blogging the Cultural Environmentalism at 10 conference at Stanford. The single most enlightening book I have ever read about the impact of intellectual property in the information age is James Boyle's Shamans Software and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society. For an engineer with no IP education to speak of circa 1999 it was a tough read but very rewarding.

I always thought the intellectual property system was a great idea but for years had been bothered by aspects of it that I was never really able to articulate. Amongst James' main lessons was the power of the romantic author metaphor as a rhetorical cover for commercial interests extracting economic rents protected by law, without the empirical evidence to justify those takings. For the first time I realised the patently obvious - the need to ask questions about the underlying assumptions of the system which was facilitating a closing off of the cultural commons in the way that James describes so eloquently in his writings. It's amazing how, when stepping out of our own areas of expertise or other comfort zones, we neglect to ask/state the obvious like "where's the evidence for this?" That's why I'd never been able to articulate my concerns. I had failed to ask the simple, rational questions -

What problem is the system designed to solve?
Is this problem if it is a problem clearly defined?
Who are the stakeholders?
What kind of system are we dealing with?
What does the system include and what does is not include - where's the system boundary?
Is the boundary in the right place?
What kind of environment surrounds the system?
Who are the power brokers and what is their source of power?
What 'solution' is being proposed?
Why has this 'solution' been chosen?
What are the underlying and hidden assumptions at play?
How well does it solve the problem?
Where is the evidence, economic and otherwise?
What other problems does it cause?
Where's the evidence?
What does the solution cost economically and otherwise?

I understand James' next book is due to be completed in the summer and recommend you look out for it. He was also the driving force behind the RSA's Adelphi Charter, btw.

For the record I still think intellectual property is a great idea, though IP is rather an unfortunate misnomer, since it leads itself to being hijacked and used as a rhetorical weapon by those with a vested interest in expanding IP law ever further at the expense of creators and the public interest. 'Temporary privileges in intellectual assets' doesn't quite have the same ring to it and 'intellectual monopoly' whilst helping to redress the rhetorical balance goes too far in the opposite direction. There must be someone amongst the raft of smart people involved in the arena who can coin a value free neutral description which captures the essence of what it is all about?

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