Common As Air
October 27, 2010
During the 2008 Presidential election, Fox News refused to grant John McCain permission to use a portion of his own speech. This is because McCain made the speech during a debate that Fox News moderated, and Fox News owned the copyright on the speech.
Does this sound counterintuitive to you? It does to Lewis Hyde, the author of Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Hyde is a MacArthur Fellow and Faculty Associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who has written about the creative commons for over thirty years. He also co-signed an amicus brief in Eldred v. Ashcroft.
Hyde’s book presents an argument against the use of intellectual property law to privatize public knowledge. As part of his argument, Hyde uses examples from history in addition to the writings of historians and philosophers. In his discussion of American history, for example, he discusses how Madison convinced Jefferson that a strictly limited copyright would help to advance science and technical knowledge. Hyde concludes that the Founding Fathers would disapprove of the long-term copyright term extensions of today, since the aristocracy kept itself in power by means of similar systems.
Hyde’s book also discusses the histories of musical creations as they relate to the cultural commons. For example, Hyde describes the origin of a song by Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin,” to underscore the importance of creative appropriation. Hyde writes that two or more earlier songs inspired “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and that appropriation of pre-existing material is a necessary practice for artists such as Dylan. In addition, Hyde describes the way in which Pete Seeger and others secured a copyright on the song “We Shall Overcome,” as an example of the notion that rights include duties to the community, a notion that Hyde terms “copy duty.” Hyde is not opposed to intellectual property protection, rather, he believes that such protection should be limited in order to foster creativity and invention.
Submitted by Steven Singer and Edwin Greenlee