Boyle's "Public Domain" — a book that balances accessibility with thoroughness; criticism with solutions

Last month, I wrote about the release of Jamie Boyle's The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind a new book by one of copyright's leading and most erudite scholars. I've just finished reading my review copy (you can get a free copy too — the book is CC licensed and free to download) and I wanted to drop in a short review.

All my early excitement about this book's release was absolutely justified. This is a hell of a book. It starts with a thorough, charming, and extensive grounding in the history and contours of copyright, moving from the 17th century to the DMCA. This is familiar ground, but Boyle gives it new life with witty asides, novel comparisons and clear writing.

The second section of this book is where it really sings, though. This is the case studies, particularly the history of the "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People," the scathing political rap spawned by outrage over FEMA's response to, and the press coverage of Katrina. Boyle traces the musicological history of this track all the way back to Ray Charles's appropriation of contemporary gospel compositions to invent soul music (over the howls of protest of the gospel singers he ripped off) to the changes wrought to hip-hop over bad US court judgements on sampling, to the legal safe harbors that allowed YouTube to flourish, giving a home to the fan videos for a political song (noting that Ben Franklin loved to rewrite the words to popular songs to make fun of political scandals) to the unmitigated hypocrisy exhibited by Jib-Jab when they used the DMCA to threaten one of the video-makers for sampling their own remix of Woody Guthrie's "This Land…" The point of this remarkable journey is to illustrate just how complicated and "unoriginal" the most original creativity is, how much even trail-blazing innovators rely on borrowing from other artists to invent their new creations.

Following on this are other case studies, including a marvellous report on the failure of the European "Database Right" — a kind of copyright extended to facts in databases that was meant to spur investment and innovation, but instead crippled and shrivelled Europe's database industry.

From there, Boyle moves into solutions — hacks around the law like Creative Commons and then a comprehensive, simple program for reforming copyright law to use empirical evidence to figure out when exclusive rights make for more vibrant creativity and when they stand in creativity's way, and to apportion (and adjust) copyright accordingly. He cites successful empirical studies and talks about how their methodologies could be adapted for wider use. He describes this as an "evidence-based" approach to copyright, one grounded on the goal of ensuring the most creativity, rather than the most reward for the creators that last year's copyright turned into winners.

Finally, Boyle returns to the theme that has dominated his career: the idea that copyright needs an "environmental movement" — a unifying principle that ties together all the people who want to get a better, more balanced world of copyrights and patents and trademarks in the same way that the notion of "ecology" brought together people who cared about wildlife, about water quality, about smog, about the ozone layer, etc, together for the first time.

All told, you'd be hard pressed to find a book that better-balances accessibility with thoroughness, or one that carries so many constructive, reasonable, moderate and achievable proposals for making a system that will improve the lot of creators and the public everywhere.

The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind,

Download The Public Domain,

The Public Domain on Amazon