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The Carletonian

Cultural Critic Talks Imagination and Property

<holar Lewis Hyde started his talk by discussing the definition of property. One prominent definition, voiced by Antonin Scalia, is “the right to exclude others.” A person owns a car, because the person can exclude other people from using it.

However, a problem occurs with the non-excludable like ideas. Hyde quoted Thomas Jefferson who said, “the field of knowledge is the common property of mankind.” There are both similarities and differences between this cultural commons and physical commons.

Garrett Hardin published an article entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons” describing how overuse destroyed common land. This did not occur in most commons  in Europe, because villagers established rules for using the commons such as rules that limited the number of animals that could graze there.

The tragedy of the commons according to Hyde does not even apply to the commons of ideas: “everybody in the world can read Shakespeare and Shakespeare does not fall apart because of that.”

Hyde later discussed Locke’s definition of property as “what you have mired your labor in.” Thus, after Hyde spent six years writing his book, the book became his property.
Unfortunately, this definition of property also has its problems. Nozick described how a person could mix a can of tomato juice with the ocean but then would the ocean become the man’s property?

Hyde raised the question of “how we should examine the status of the fruits of human wit and imagination.” Currently, all literature written before 1923 exists in the common domain.

The Entertainment Industry considers ideas property and considers taking them theft. Hyde recalls a letter that The Entertainment Industry sent to him requesting that he take measures against students who steal, because “theft is theft.”

The Entertainment industry view ideas as property, from which they can exclude people but “the Entertainment industry letter is a tautology; you can’t argue against it.”

While the founders recognized intellectual property as “the right to exclude,” the founders thought of copyright and patents as monopolies, because in England, “the monopoly power was used to control discourse, as a tool of despotism.”

They considered ideas extremely important for democratic self-governance. “It was their assumption that to have a self-governing nation, you needed to have an educated and disputive population,” said Hyde, “You needed people who knew what was going on and read the newspapers and read books and so forth and if you wanted to have that, you needed very low barriers to the circulation of knowledge”

The founders also thought of intellectual property in terms of establishing a creative community, “a republic of letters”. These creative communities also require “very low barriers to the circulation of knowledge”

While Hyde did not have any answers to his questions, he made his listeners think about topics that they had perhaps never before considered.

“I really enjoyed the talk,” said Will Biagi ‘14, “Mr. Hyde’s ideas about a commonwealth of ideas open to all was new to me. In this day and age, debates over privacy and such wage so often and cost so much money, that rethinking (or really, remembering) how ideas were viewed by our founding fathers left me feeling alright about the future.”

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