A privilege

A Reading Note

Copyrights and patents were originally conceived of as monopolies; that is, they provided an exclusive control over a trade, and they did so at the mercy of the state:

The 1624 Statute of Monopolies also made one overt exception to its general prohibition: it allowed patents “of fourteen years or under” to be granted “to the first and true inventor” of “any manner of new manufacture.” Such was the first British patent law and its context make two things clear: patents, like copyrights, were understood to be a species of monopoly, and in allowing them Parliament was granting a privilege, not recognizing a right.

Hyde, Common as Air, page 86

Nearly five hundred years later, it is common to refer to one’s copyright as a natural right; and that infringing upon it is akin to theft, as if the taking of your words is the same as the taking of your bread. But perhaps we would do well to recall that copyright is a special right, not an inalienable one. And with it comes a set of obligations:

Innovations like [the general public license] have come to be called “copyleft,” an unfortunate term because it falsely implies that measures of this sort have their place on the political spectrum. The “right” in copyright refers to a privilege secured by law and its correlative is “duty,” not “left.” The GPL imposes a copy-duty on its users; they have duties to the commons, the duties of encumbered and comic selves.

Hyde, Common as Air, page 220

The use of the word “comic” here is in opposition to “tragic”; that is, a comic self is one who adapts to her surroundings, and succeeds (or fails) collectively with her fellow actors. In contrast, the tragic self proceeds along the thin rail of individualism, and pays no heed to those in his way. It is instructive to recall that while a comedy typically concludes with a wedding, a tragedy always ends in death.

Related books

Common as Air

Lewis Hyde

Hyde addresses the history of copyright, and demonstrates that the founding fathers were not at all fans of it.

The Comedy of Survival

Joseph Meeker

Meeker argues that the destructive aspects of western civilization are founded on the tragic mode, while the comic mode offers a path for redemption.