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David Bouchier: A Gift From The Past

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Few things are as deeply-rooted in human nature as the idea of property. One of the first words a child learns is “mine.” Our whole civilization is based on the right to have and hold property. The 18th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that property is the source of all our inequalities, disputes and wars. A backyard fence or a national frontier arouse the same possessive feelings. This idea, though obviously wrong, laid the foundation for a whole alternative political tradition — Communism — that rejected the idea of property altogether. You may recall that this turned out to be the most unpopular program in the entire history of politics. We love our property, and our entire legal system is designed to protect it. Even the Communist Chinese are capitalists now, although they pretend not to be.

Far more curious is the idea of intellectual property, that was conceived in the 19th century and has been causing confusion ever since. Intellectual property law is designed to protect the creators of scientific inventions, books, music and so on. Before these laws existed there was little or no protection. Shakespeare stole most of his historical plots directly from the histories of Holinshed. Composers like Mozart and Haydn had their music shamelessly copied all over Europe, and Charles Dickens’s books were reprinted in America without permission or payment. Nobody felt embarrassed about this: it was taken for granted.

Now we have copyright laws and armies of lawyers to defend intellectual property, although stealing other people’s ideas is as popular as ever. Almost every week we read another high-profile case from the world of academia or publishing. Authors are routinely accused of lifting chunks of their works from previously published authors. Politicians borrow whole paragraphs of their speeches from more gifted performers. Recently there have even been reports of preachers copying one another’s sermons.

Intellectual property is hard to defend in the Internet age. Once ideas or words or images are out on the web they become effectively public property, whatever the law says. Whole orchestral performances, and even operas can be squeezed onto smart phones, along with galleries of pictures. A library of books may become no more than a few weightless kilobytes on a tablet. Intellectual property has always been easier to steal than the more solid kind. Now much of it is dematerialized to the point where it is almost asking to be stolen.

Intellectual property laws are intended to defend new and original ideas especially. But there’s not much new under the sun — perhaps especially when it comes to sermons and political speeches. It’s all been thought and said before, and will be thought and said again tomorrow. Virtually all our culture from the time of the ancient Greeks consists of borrowings and repetitions. Most movies, novels and art are plucked straight from the universal human storybook. Mark Twain was fond of declaring: “I have never had an original thought.” He knew how rare such things are. Original thoughts, when and if they appear, should certainly be tended and protected like delicate plants. But the vast majority of what we call intellectual property is no more than a faraway echo from the past. We owe everything to a few original thinkers scattered throughout history, whose intellectual property we appropriate without a word of thanks every day. Without them we would have no culture at all.

Copyright: David Bouchier

  

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.