Monday, November 17, 2008

Art's Role In The Intellectual Property Debate

In all of my free time during the work day, I read an article written by Daniel B. Smith on a theory author Lewis Hyde purports in his upcoming and yet untitled book. His idea is that intellectual property needs to be belong to the community as a whole, not solely to the creator or the purchaser of the piece. This debate covers more than just art, it is something that is hotly contended where the internet and copyright laws are involved. But, without getting too detailed, I would like to share my thoughts on the topic. 

As Hyde so succinctly puts it, art needs to belong to a communal pool of IP, how else could an artist and his work gain success if it is not discussed and debated, circulated, reviewed and critiqued? This is how we come to know such famous pieces so well- reading about them, learning about them in class, seeing the actual piece in a museum. Why even have museums if art is only for the possessor and not the benefit of the public? What if something as iconic as Picasso's Guernica was shut away in some private collection? If this was never available for public view, many students could not experience a masterpiece through their textbooks and Power Point slides. Millions of tourists could not stand back and take in Picasso's work in person. And having seen the actual piece, it is absolutely awe inspiring and moving. I would hate to deny anyone such an experience. 

One of my favourite authors Jonathan Lethem was quoted on Lewis Hyde's book "The Gift" and how it affected him. And pulling from my personal knowledge about the author (See! I'm sharing my own IP with the public!), Lethem got much of his inspiration from Dick Tracy comics he read as a kid. Thus furthering my point, we wouldn't be reading such great books as "Motherless Brooklyn" and "Gun With Occasional Music" today, if he himself had not been an avid reader the comic strip. Hyde has become the poster child and an outspoken advocate for a communal IP. So, clearly his own work has inspired and brought about many new and brilliant works of art. 

The question that initially came to mind upon finishing this article was, "Does a communal IP go against our individualistic society?" Right off, yes! We have always been a society that emphasises the importance of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps- forever imbued and romanticized in the cowboy image and Wild West era. But after further consideration, I realized much of our society is not only individualistic, but also collective. We have countless organisations, societies, charities, and even social networking online to prove it. So, we can still give the credit solely to the artist, but we also share the work through the same discussions and circulation that makes the artist successful, thus inspiring future artists. Hyde makes this point so articulately with Benjamin Franklin as his subject. Franklin was not a genius on his own, he had many mentors, volumes of research and literature, and experience from all around the world to bring him to the discoveries and inventions he made. And we, in today's society, still benefit from that collective knowledge Franklin pulled from. So too can this be applied to the artworld. We cannot stifle creativity by imposing too many restrictions on that which inspires us.

And thus begging the question: Why should art exist at all if it can't be shared?


  1. Except, Maddio, what about artists who receive remuneration for their work? One must be cautious not let his work slip into the public abyss, never to receive compensation for his creations. In producing work for a company, how can the artist protect his creativity from being fully absorbed by a less than gracious host, denying credit due? Or worse, to have the concept of a work of art stolen right out from under him.

    Despite these admonishments, the inability to sing Happy Birthday on TV without paying for the privilege is simply not what the constructors of the Constitution had in mind. The artist must be protected, the individual, but the corporate mindset must be brought under rein. Just because corporations have the legal muscle, this girth should not be their ticket to distort the meaning of the constitution or to bend the rules through lobbying our government representatives.

    It is indeed, a conundrum. As individuals, we must share to flourish, but we must protect so as not to perish.

  2. If the owner owns the art, then are they responsible for the influence that art has over other individuals? And, in turn, are they responsible for the resultant actions of these individuals? As Denise Levertov once said, "I don't think one can accurately measure the historical effectiveness of a poem; but one does know, of course, that books influence individuals; and individuals, although they are part of large economic and social processes, influence history. Every mass is after all made up of millions of individuals..."

    In these circumstances maybe collective ownership might be for the best...