Several academics question intellectual property and originality

Several professors have recently published books questioning accepted ideas about intellectual property. One professor illustrated his approach in a recent “reading” of his new book in front of a bookstore audience:

But they didn’t hear a single word written by Mr. Boon.

Instead, he read from a 1960s sex manual, an Italian cookbook, and Bob Dylan’s memoir, among others. He had grabbed those books, more or less at random, from the store’s shelves an hour before the event. So why not read from the book he actually wrote? “I didn’t see a need to,” says Mr. Boon, an associate professor of English at York University, in Toronto. That’s because, he says, the same concepts could be found elsewhere, albeit in slightly altered form.

Not coincidentally, that’s the case he makes in his book, In Praise of Copying (Harvard University Press). Mr. Boon argues that originality is more complicated than it seems, and that imitation may be the sincerest form of being human. He writes: “I came to recognize that many of the boundaries we have set up between activities we call ‘copying’ and those we call ‘not copying’ are false, and that, objectively, phenomena that involve copying are everywhere around us.”

He read from the cookbook because recipes aren’t protected by copyright law (unless they contain a “substantial literary expression,” according to the U.S. Copyright Office). He read from the memoir because of Dylan’s liberal borrowings from traditional folk music. And he read from the sex manual because, well, sex is all about reproduction, isn’t it?

While these are just a few academics with books on the subject, it does seem to tap into a growing movement (perhaps led by younger generations?) where originality is redefined as putting existing together in new ways, more of a mash-up than original idea. Whether this will catch on with a larger audience or pass legal muster remains to be seen.

But it does raise an interesting question: how many of our thoughts and ideas are original?

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