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An Un-'Common' Take On Copyright Law

Common As Air

It's probably safe to say that most Americans don't think about intellectual property laws on a daily basis. The closest most of us ever come to pondering copyright, trademark and patent issues is when we're trying in vain to fast-forward through the FBI warning on a DVD. That's not for lack of trying on the part of groups like the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, which have in the past sued individuals for file sharing and sponsored public information campaigns with the goal of educating American youths about music and movie "piracy" (that is, copyright infringement).

The rise of e-books promises to bring up similar issues in the world of literature. But intellectual property laws affect our culture profoundly, in ways that go beyond college students being taken to court for downloading songs. Some people believe that not only are current copyright laws too stringent, but that the assumptions the current laws are based on are artificial, illogical and outdated.

Among them is Lewis Hyde, a professor of art and politics who has studied these issues for years. In his new book Common As Air, Hyde says he's suspicious of the concept of "intellectual property" to begin with, calling it "historically strange." Hyde backs it up with an impressive amount of research; he spends a significant amount of time reflecting on the Founding Fathers, who came up with America's initial copyright laws.

Hyde is a contrarian, but he's not a scorched-earth opponent of all copyright laws. He does believe the national paradigm for intellectual property issues should be changed, though, at one point offering several examples of the absurd situations the current laws have created. (In one particularly weird example, an e-book publisher insisted its edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland "cannot be lent to someone else" and "cannot be read aloud.") Hyde advocates for a return to a "cultural commons" and quotes, approvingly, Thomas Jefferson, who believed that "ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man."

If all that sounds too inside baseball for you, don't worry. Hyde, whom David Foster Wallace once called "one of our true superstars of nonfiction," is an infectiously enthusiastic writer. He's able to jump from topic to topic while never losing sight of his thesis, and the side roads he takes the reader down -- from Emily Dickinson to Bob Dylan, from Benjamin Franklin (whom Hyde calls the "founding pirate") to John Cage -- are fascinating.

Most important, Hyde's argument is well-presented and convincing -- of course not everyone's going to agree with him, but you'd be hard-pressed to find another book about the issue, either agreeing or dissenting, as well-researched or expertly laid out. America's intellectual property law hasn't changed much in the past few decades; it doesn't look like it's going to change anytime soon (at least not toward a larger public domain, one of Hyde's main goals). But Hyde has crafted a compelling argument that copyright is "a limit that has lost its limit," and it's one that every American who is concerned about our nation's cultural heritage should consider.

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