Friday, October 02, 2009

James Boyle book seminar

I did a seminar for some respected colleagues at the OU yesterday on James Boyle's book, The Public Domain.

Boyle is an exceptional scholar, activist and storyteller.  Needless to day I can't recommend the book highly enough.

In The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind, he eloquently and passionately argues that our culture, science and democracy depend on a delicate balance between ideas that are controlled by intellectual property and those that are freely available in the public domain.  He tells a terrific series of engaging stories about, for example, why the building blocks of synthetic biology, business methods, pairs of musical notes are now owned, why blues, jazz or soul music would probably be illegal if it were invented today, why most of 20th century culture is legally unavailable to us, and why the World Wide Web would, most likely, have been killed at birth if lawyers, commerce and policymakers could have reacted quickly enough.

This all adds up to what Boyle calls a 'second enclosure movement' – except that on this occasion we’re not facing an enclosure of the grassy commons of olde Englande but rather an enclosure of the 'commons of the mind' and a serious erosion of the public domain, a state of affairs future generations will rightly condemn us for allowing to happen; at the very point that we have the technical and economic capacity to facilitate universal access to recorded human knowledge, a digital library of Alexandria.

The book, destined to become the standard text in the area, also serves as the Silent Spring of the information society – a clarion call to understand and protect the public domain through scholarship, communication, articulation and recognition of shared interests and values that allow that notion - the public domain - to come into public consciousness and a diverse ecology of activism to support all this. A kind of "environmentalism for information" and the public domain.

Sadly I can't put the slides on Slideshare since I included some audio and video sequences of the evolution of some songs James mentions in the book and a parody animated sequence of Disney characters explaining copyright, fair use and the public domain.

My thanks to John Naughton, who very kindly attended on his first day of  long overdue study leave and recorded proceedings, despite having endulged my rants about IP for more years than he would care to remember.  So John had already heard the stories and my views on them on mulitple occasions previously.  Thanks also to Doug Clow who made a valiant attempt, live blogging, to make some sense of my incoherent ramblings during the afternoon.

In the final chapter of the book James makes a persuasive and heartfelt plea for a politics of the public domain. Although I'm pessimistic about his vision coming to pass I was just thinking in preparing for the seminar and following on from my presentation at the Gikii conference recently, wouldn't it be nice to have a visual representation of the erosion of the public domain equivalent to the kind of work James Balog does with the Extreme Ice Survey on glaciers.

Update: Just a PS for policymakers. When you do get round to reading The Public Domain and you should, pay particular attention to what Professor Boyle calls the "Jefferson warning" and its corrolary the "Sony axiom".

Update 2: Diane Coyle aka the enlightened economist posted a terrific review of the book at more or less the same time as I was discussing it yesterday.

No comments: