Writer Lewis Hyde talks Ownership, Intellectual Property, and the Cultural Commons at UMF

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Lewis Hyde, author of Common as Air, defends the idea of a cultural commons at UMF

In wake of the final 12 New Commons Project nominations being selected, poet, essayist, and author of the book Common as Air Lewis Hyde visited UMF to speak in defense of the cultural commons and discuss the question of “who exactly owns what?” Hyde was met with a full house of students and faculty members, as well as a livestream of the event on Facebook.

English professor Kristen Case introduced Hyde and discussed his book, noting that the core of his discussion would be centered around the battle of intellectual property and the entertainment industry.

“If you haven’t bought it, you stole it,” Case said when quoting Hyde’s book.

As a scholar who served as a writing professor at both Harvard and Kenyon College, Hyde began his discussion on the concept of ownership and copyright laws with an example from his university experiences.

“We get emails from the entertainment industry to remind us how harsh the law is when it comes to pirating movies and music,” Hyde said. “‘Theft is a harsh word,’ they said, and while that is true, is there more to it?”

Hyde continued with an analysis of the rise of digital media and how internet platforms have confused the rules of “who owns what.” He posed one of the core questions, “what is property?” which can be defined as having the ability to give the “right to exclude,” meaning you can prevent people from using or interacting with said piece of property.

“A commons is defined as a wealth of resources that can be used by the whole community, which therefore means you can’t exclude people from using it,” Hyde pointed out when drawing this argument back to the New Commons.

Given the definition of a regular commons, a cultural commons can be defined as a wealth of artistic resources, culturally significant ideas and works, and the management of ideas.

“Given that definition and logic, the only way to keep people from using art and ideas is to keep it all in your head,” Hyde said.

This led to the “tragedy of the commons,” the idea that only so much grass can grow, meaning that the resources can be limited and run out if not monitored. Can too many people “own” one idea?

“Some of the copyrighted [New Commons] nominations may have some problems and zones of conflict,” Hyde said. “How should we manage the fruits of human creativity?”

Hyde then noted founding father Benjamin Franklin and his refusal to copyright or patent his works and inventions. The fact that he had help with every element, from concepts to how things should work, came from someone else.

“What am I? My works have been nourished by countless individuals,” Franklin said in regards to this matter. “My work is the work of a collective.”

This led to the “thesis” of Hyde’s argument; sharing ideas is how we improve them. Creative work belongs in the commons because it circulates knowledge for future generations. Although the issue becomes more complicated when you mix labor into the idea, the fact that someone interacted with the art and the idea means that new ideas are born, whether you want that result or not.

“What is the self that comes into being in the presence of someone else’s art?” Hyde questioned.

The final 12 New Commons nominations have been selected; to find out what they are, or to learn more about the New Commons Project, visit the website at http://newcommons.umf.maine.edu/.

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