I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot lately, because I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Aaron Swartz.  I’ll  post more about that later, but in the meantime this is another paper from my Perspectives of Library Science class, about creativity and copyright.  For your consideration.

In 1813, Thomas Jefferson wrote the following in a letter to Isaac McPherson:

He who receives an idea from me receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites [sic] his taper at mine receives light without darkening me.  That ideas should spread freely from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature…

(Lewis Hyde, Common as Air, 2010, p. 91)

This notion–that the free and mutually-beneficial exchange of ideas was a natural state of society–has a slightly idealistic tinge in our current free-market world, but this state of mind was not unique to Jefferson.  Many of the men thought of as the “founding fathers” of the United States (James Madison, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, in addition to Jefferson) advocated strongly for this kind of democratic state of mind and freedom of discourse, and along with this stance held a skepticism of the kind of monopoly that produces oppressive copyright regimes that persist in perpetuity (Hyde, p. 165).  Copyright (or a monopoly over one’s own creations, in other words), for these radical thinkers of the new republic, was a privilege, and one that was only beneficial in the sense that it was an encouragement to ingenuity (Hyde, p. 106).  The “willing subordination of self-interest to the public good” was always expected to be the focus of every good citizen, and any monopoly rights granted were given with the expectation that they would eventually expire, and that the fruits of individual creativity would “ripen into common wealth” (Hyde, p. 106).  Copyright in this view is not a protectionary measure, but rather “a grant whose true purpose is not so much to reward creators as to enrich the cultural commons”  (Hyde, p. 51).

We’ve come a long way since then.  These days we’re barely able to use or manipulate the artistic creations we have legitimately purchased, and artists scramble for income in the midst of piracy and unauthorized sampling.  Copyright is alternately blamed as the problem and lauded as the solution to these dilemmas, but either way it seems those founding fathers to the south would be disappointed at the way things have played out.  The copyright laws that foregrounded the importance of creative works’ eventual entrance into the public domain persisted until 1976 when a revision of existing legislation removed the registration requirement for creators–prior to that date, “authors and proprietors” had to apply for copyright of their own works; now, that copyright is assumed, unless a creator explicitly declares otherwise (Hyde, p. 58).  This increasing “enclosure of culture,” as Hyde coins it (p. 45) conceivably arose for reasons both proprietorial and entrepreneurial–and this movement is no doubt a natural progression of a capitalist society–but it is enlightening to examine the original intentions of the people who developed these laws, and observe the differences between their stance and ours.

Just as copyright laws gradually enclosed the “commons,” affecting and adjusting how physical works were created and shared, the notions of ownership and compensation now encircle the newest version of that commons:  the Internet.  Once a playground for innovation and collaboration, the Internet in its developing phases existed as a free-range domain for creativity, with “ideas spreading freely” in ways that would have made Jefferson proud.  Now, however, in probably unsurprising displays of history repeating itself, the Internet is also being subject to creative enclosure and confinement, under the guise of copyright and the protection of intellectual property.

Lawrence Lessig confirms the ideas regarding copyright presented by Hyde and others.  As he  states in the first chapter of his book The Future of Ideas, “there was a time…when creativity was essentially unregulated…the very act of creativity was understood to be the act of taking something and reforming it…the law had essentially no role in saying how one person could take and remake the work of someone else” (Lessig, 2002, p. 8).  What he goes on to suggest, however, is not so rosy a future.  Although he acknowledges that no one can predict how the Internet will develop (p. 7), Lessig fears the worst:  that rather than this notion of the Internet as a cyber-playground for social and creative interaction that makes “human life more, not less, human” (p. 10), increasing regulation and litigation that tries to label and corral “property” will squeeze out this creative instinct, until the Internet is nothing more than a million-channel TV set.  Rather than a utopian notion of many-to-many communication, in Lessig’s darkest vision we will be fed Internet content in a one-way delivery–albeit with more options and tailored to our specific interests and tastes–with little interaction, and with the definite potential for propagandizing a “manageable, malleable, and sellable public” (p.7).

The proliferation of digital resources (and of course, their ability to be duplicated in ways indistinguishable from the original) has prompted this desire to circle the digital wagons, so to speak, but Lessig’s point is more about the underlying principle of sharing and collaboration that defined the early Internet.  Lessig emphasizes the “free” part of Jefferson’s notion of freely spreading ideas, indicating that “free resources have always been central to innovation, creativity, and democracy” (p. 12), and pointing out that the free access to–and free ability to manipulate–the Internet’s processes and programs was a crucial factor in its development.  He is afraid this freedom is disappearing, just as the free exchange of ideas and physical creative content became regulated by initial copyright laws, and he despairs of this loss.

It would appear that the notion of intellectual creation and property as an ongoing and “common good” is still upheld in libraries, however, which seem to prevail as a last bastion of the original ideals of men like Jefferson and Franklin, as melodramatic as that may seem.  The free exchange of ideas is the foundation of the library’s philosophy, with the accompanying understanding that those ideas will be nurtured, valued, adapted, etc.–in perpetuity, because that is the only way libraries may also continue to exist.  Copyright laws and issues have, of course, made their way into the library’s still somewhat-hallowed halls, and the Internet’s appearance as an important resource has compounded many of these intellectual property concerns.  It is important that librarians be continually aware of the issues Lessig, Hyde and others write about, because these concepts were and are part of the foundation of democratic society.  If libraries are to continue to symbolize and uphold this democratic ideal, strong positions on issues of intellectual freedom are necessary, for “the moral and mutual instruction” of all present and future patrons.


Hyde, Lewis.  (2010).  Common as Air:  Revolution, Art, and Ownership.  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Lessig, Lawrence.  (2002).  The future of ideas:  The fate of the commons in a connected world.  New York:  Vintage Books.


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