I’m going to guess that most of us have been trying to get enough of a grasp of the boundaries of copyright in order to be able to adequately address the rules governing our use of documents and images in our final projects. Some of us may have even gone a step farther and attempted to understand why things are the way they are when it comes to copyright. If so, irritation and/or dissatisfaction was probably encountered.
One of the most interesting and satisfying books on copyright for me has been ‘Shamans, Spleens and Software’ by James Boyle. A law professor at Duke University and a leading expert in copyright theory, Boyle takes a different approach from a lot of other experts on copyright law. Instead of doing the usual thing of presenting a narrative about case histories (or worse), he goes back to the historical moment when copyright came into being.
According to Boyle, courts were struggling to define a way to attach property values to works of creativity when they settled upon the romantic notion of the author as the organizing concept with which to sketch out this copyright thing. Unfortunately, there was a problem. Although it helped conceptualize a new kind of right that resides with some individual or individuals and can be transferred, it divorced itself from an earlier understanding of authorship, one that predates the printing press and was common when the writer of a book was merely one member of a creative team that handcrafted books together. This, says, Boyle is at the heart of the very narrow definition of creativity that always demands that, regardless of the work or creation, the “author” be identified and endowed with exaggerated notions of originality and discovery.
Boyle argues that this notion of the romantic author continues to be at the heart of contemporary copyright, and the shamans, spleens, and software in the title refer to some fascinating, but terrifying illustrations he presents showing the consequences with which we continue to live.