Tinker in a Collective Shop

Check out Daniel B. Smith's article on Lewis Hyde in the New York Times Magazine: "What is Art For? Hyde is the author of "The Gift", an influential book exploring the idea of gift economies. It's a book that I have meant to read. Hyde seems to be a practical man as well as a man of ideas. He wrote an essay "Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking" because he was reading Berryman's poems while working in a hospital's drunk ward and noticed the same kind of delusional language he found in the poetry.

Hyde is working on a new book about, in Smith's words, "recovering the idea of the cultural commons as a deeply American concept." Smith writes that Hyde's emphasis is not on the "lone genius" but the "inventor eager to share his discoveries."


(image from the Franklin Institute)

Despite [Ben] Franklin's notorious talents of self-promotion, he was explicit that his inventions were not and should not be his to claim as property. Offered an exclusive patent on the Franklin stove, he refused on the grounds that the invention was based on previous innovations – specifically, on theories of heat and matter articulated by Isaac Newton and the Dutch physician Hermann Boerhaave. "That as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others," Franklin wrote in his "Autobiography," "we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously."

Of course, you might say, this was an easy position for Franklin to take: he was rich. People need their copyrights to live. But that's exactly Hyde's point: copyrights are utilitarian things. They generate money to pay a mortgage and buy groceries and continue working. Extended too far beyond their practical usefulness, copyrights not only contradict their original intent; they also wall creators off from the sources of their inventiveness. Genius, Hyde believes, needs to "tinker in a collective shop."