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November 10, 2005

Collective Intellectual Labor

Taking a theoretical step back from the Sherrod Brown story, I have a longstanding academic interest in how the law treats collective production of knowledge. One of my academic articles I'm fondest of is Trade Secrets and Collective Bargaining: A Solution to Resolving Tensions in the Economics of Innovation, an exploration of the history and present debate on how to recognize and reward intellectual work in our economic system.

What is fascinating in all this is the search for the singular "author", as law professor James Boyle notes. All sorts of work is appropriated by others in our economic system with corporations or "authors" appropriating the collective work of others as their own based on money changing hands in an employment relationship.

In this game, my blog post, based on my collating and summarizing a range of writers, including individual summaries in various LEXIS decisions, gets the status of "author" and my role must be acknowledged. But no one would have had a problem if Sherrod Brown appropriated work by his direct employees as his own, since we are used to accepting corporate appropriation of the ideas of their employees.

We inherently reject a "public domain" where ideas can be freely appropriated -- even when the writer authorizes such appropriation -- but accept what I call a "private domain" within an economic enterprise where ideas may be freely appropriated without attribution.

Part of what I explored in the paper is this history of corporations extinguishing the rights of workers over control and ownership of knowledge in the workplace in contrast to this rising enforcement of intellectual property rights between corporate "authors."

It is only against this background that one can understand why the Plain Dealer can blithely accept the fiction that Sherrod Brown is the "author" of work done by his staff, but has palpitations if Brown uses work from the public domain. Any employer in this view has the right to claim work done in his "private domain" as his own, but we must fiercely suppress any recognition of a "public domain" outside such capitalist firms.

In this sense, the corporate resentment of "open source" software -- something I've also written extensively about -- is of a similar character to the Plain Dealer's conniptions over the "plagiarism" issue. There is something deeply threatening to many parts of the old "information establishment"-- whether corporate journalism or software companies -- from a movement like blogging or open source software where the production of knowledge is so clearly a collective process and where ownership and attribution is oten so unclear.

Of course, production of knowledge in the old system is also collective and appropriation is rampant, but the fictions of capitalist exchange and labor exploitation allow corporate "authors" to assert singular ownership of ideas to fudge over the messiness of innovation, where borrowing and appropriation are rampant and necessary to the process.

Posted by Nathan at November 10, 2005 07:21 AM