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Common As Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership Hardcover – 1 Mar 2012


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About the Author

Lewis Hyde is a poet, essayist, translator and cultural critic. He is the author of Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership. He is a MacArthur Fellow and the Richard. L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College, as well as Faculty Associate at Harvard’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society.

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Amazon.com: 7 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Engaging & original critique of the cultural commons 25 July 2012
By David A. Bollier - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
The great virtue of Common as Air is the originality of Lewis Hyde's engaging historical exploration of the cultural commons. Contrary to the claims of one reviewer here, the commons has not been swept into the dustbin of history by capitalism. It lives a quite vibrant contemporary life in such commons as open source software, Wikipedia and Creative Commons-licensed music, images and books. The point is to understand the social dynamics of such commons (quite apart from the role of markets and government). Copyright law clearly does not appreciate these dimensions of creativity. Why exactly is so much creativity incubated in social communities, and how do property rights and markets sometimes stifle culture?

Don't be mistaken into thinking that this book is a dry policy analysis. It's a lush, provocative and highly readable meditation on human creativity, culture and property rights, especially in the context of American history. Who knew that Benjamin Franklin was not just an iconic entrepreneur, but also America's "founding pirate," an innovator deeply committed to collaborative invention and the open sharing of knowledge? Hyde tells a largely untold story about the Founders' commitment to open, shareable culture and innovation. Highly recommended.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Terrific 10 Dec. 2011
By aline soules - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book explains the true meaning "commons" in the context of the public good. This is critical to an understanding of the development of copyright, both in terms of the law and also in terms of critical thinking about this complex subject. Further, the writing style is excellent. The writing is readable, clear, and direct. I recommend this book highly.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Brilliant and Inspiring 13 Nov. 2013
By Linda Bamber - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
This book should be required reading for anyone old enough to vote. It tells the story of the privatization of what should be, and once was, owned in common; in other words, of a progressive and accelerating theft. And yet the book is a pleasure to read, the product of an idiosyncratic and delighted intelligence, full of narrative and surprise. It has been described as a polemic, and in a sense it is; but there's none of that angry, stay-on-message kind of writing that makes most polemics boring. The emotion is elided in favor of fascinating and varied analyses and tales; but the reader knows what the author feels because she begins to feel it herself. In other words, the book is a work of art as well as non-fiction, making a space for the reader's engagement by getting out of the way. Behind the book, moreover, is a deep and powerful sense of what is violated in the current rush to monetize everything. Hyde is not just a critic of privatization but an impassioned advocate of our common purpose and common good. The book reminds us of our faith in each other and of our place in the human world. It has been read as a brief for political action, and it certainly is; but its value, in my opinion, goes way beyond that. Common As Air revives our sense that we belong to something larger than ourselves that we can and should foster and love.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Uncommonly fascinating book on the history of an important idea 29 Dec. 2013
By steevithak - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
As a software developer who releases my work under the GNU GPL, a free software license, I’ve been on the receiving end of many a rant on the subject of property rights. My contributions to a freely accessible cultural commons of creatives works, I’m told, is communism and will lead to the eventual downfall of the one true system of property ownership as expressed by God in modern copyright and patent law. I don’t take such rants seriously anymore but when I found a book offering an in depth look at how our modern laws came to be and what the founding fathers actually said about these things; well, I could hardly pass it up!

Hyde starts out with a brief survey of ideas on property rights from cultures all over the world. He then looks at the origins of modern western thought. It turns out, of course, that the founding fathers believed quite strongly that free access to ideas was critical to democratic self-governance and free enterprise. This comes as no surprise to those in the free software and open source communities, who have rediscovered many of the same principles, including the importance of creating a “commonwealth of knowledge”.

Hyde’s story crosses paths with the free software community once or twice along the way. It also crosses paths with the supreme court, Donald Rumsfeld, John Adams, Sonny Bono, John Locke, Noah Webster, and a host of other familiar people. It’s the story of how we slowly traded the long term benefits of a commonwealth of knowledge for the enticing profits promised by “intellectual property”. The story makes great reading as history even if you’re not terribly interested in property rights. You’ll read dozens of interesting historical anecdotes you may not have heard before. For example, there’s the story of Benjamin Franklin’s founding of what sounds like the first hackerspace. He and other interested amateurs in Philadelphia put some money together, got some space, and started doing weird things with electricity. They created a crowd-sourced procedure for collecting and dispersing information about electrical experiments and open sourced the results, like an array of Leyden jars he named a “battery”. No doubt my right-wing friends would consider Franklin a liberal hippy with communist leanings. A modern “intellectual property” lawyer would consider him a “pirate”; indeed, Hyde titled the chapter “Benjamin Franklin, Founding Pirate”.

Once Hyde gets to the end of the history, he ponders what can be done to protect what’s left of the commons and even restore it for future generations. He offers three examples of real-world attempts at fixing the problem. The most familiar and successful of the examples is Richard Stallman and the GNU General Public License. The software commons created by Stallman and the GPL is responsible for at least some of the software running on nearly every computing device in the world today from the largest supercomputer to the phone or tablet on which you’re reading this blog. Hyde notes also the example of folk singer Pete Seeger, who worked with other folk singers to protect a piece of music called “We Shall Overcome” using the earliest known example of the “claim and release” idea later used in the GPL for software and, more specifically, in the Creative Commons licenses for art and musical works. It worked as method of freeing information in a system that forces everything to be “owned”. The final example is the attempt at keeping scientific information free that was made through a formal declaration by the scientists working on the Human Genome Project.

What all three of Hyde’s examples have in common is that they were devised not by the government but by individuals working on their own or in groups to protect the freedom of ideas FROM the system enforced by the government. There are vast amounts of money and effort focused on the government by business to create more and stricter “intellectual property” laws (because they are very, very profitable for the few companies that hold the “property”). His examples give us some hope that, even if we the people can’t match the financial and lobbying resources of the corporate world, we can still outsmart them and protect the freedom of our ideas.
I especially liked the discussion of “stints” — collective controls to prevent ... 31 Jan. 2015
By Thomas Davenport - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
A delightful, witty, and informative account. I especially liked the discussion of “stints” — collective controls to prevent greed and appropriation where it is harmful to the community. Hyde likens this to the old folk custom of “beating the boundaries” of the Common to tear down what was selfish.

The book brings out the question of what it is to be a proper and full human being in a society where even the water is for sale.

The book is an enjoyable read with lots of stories from history (some quite funny) that make theory and ideas real and understandable. He has done a lot of research. HIs other books are good too.

Tom Davenport
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