Take My Ideas . . . Please

June 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

I just got around to adding a Creative Commons license to this site (see the sidebar), though I’ve been intending to do so for some time—for a site about gifts, it seems like the natural thing to do. If you’re not up on how the Creative Commons works, I encourage you to go check out their website: I delayed researching it for a long time on the assumption that it would be full of legalese and hard reading, only to discover that it’s actually really simple and readable. So you’ve got no excuse now. One of the big cultural problems that the Internet has brought to the surface is the utter bloody-mindedness* of our copyright law, and in the absence of some contemporary form of medieval copy protection, the Creative Commons represents the best option that I know of.

As a gift-exchange theory geek, to embrace copyright would involve some serious cognitive dissonance. All my research suggests that those things which we value most operate best when they’re not bounded by a contract: ideas, creativity, and art are killed by clinging to them too tightly, refusing to share freely in fear that someone else will profit off your work. Copyright relies on law and legal rights; the Creative Commons relies upon generosity and building goodwill. As such, it substitutes a gift economy for a market economy in precisely the realms that benefit most from gift exchange. The Creative Commons institutes a sort of great international potlatch, a spectacle of excessive, spendthrift giving.

This analysis isn’t original to me—Lewis Hyde, who wrote one of the most influential books out there on the gift, also wrote Common as Air, which contains a critique of the idea of intellectual property. My brother also tells me that Seth Godin has argued that we’re moving toward a gift economy, though I haven’t had time to read much of his yet. Also, the digital humanist Mark Sample makes this case in a great blog post about the future of digital scholarship. The conviction shared by Creative Commons advocates is that by sharing our ideas and works freely, we can reap greater benefits than we do by copyrighting and restricting their use.

There’s a certain idealism in this approach to intellectual “property.” I don’t want to promote a utopian view of a copyright-less future. It is inevitable that those who choose to use Creative Commons licensing (or to give away their art and ideas in whatever form) will sometimes be exploited and will not accomplish all the ideals we hope for. And gifts, as Derrida and others have reminded us, are not always positive: the limitless universe of free content available via the Internet has real intellectual and spiritual dangers, not least the danger of its simple volume, which can encourage superficial and inattentive sampling rather than deep engagement. Still, I think the risks are worth it. I can’t control what use you make of the gift of these words—whether you exploit the gift for your own gain or allow it to become poison in your reception—and nor would I want to. But I feel the obligation to give nonetheless: the obligation to receive worthily (whatever you think that means) is yours.

*If you need proof of that bloody-mindedness, I encourage you to read up on the travesty of the Google Books Settlement, for starters.

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