James Boyle’s book Shamans, Software & Spleens, is about the complex politics surrounding intellectual property rights. For Boyle, “the power to gather, manipulate, retrieve, and commodify information has always been important” because it often involves an often contradictory relationship between private property and the public domain (6, 12). He further addresses the importance of looking at the construction of information within the realm of law, because it is often manipulated by “cultural, economic, and ideological assumptions” (12). That being said, Boyle however, finds it necessary to see law as a “complex interpretive activity,” because language plays a huge role in our understanding of ownership claims, property rights, or copyright claims. And our language itself is shaped by our western culture and our historical ideas about power and exclusivity; a practice of unequal distribution of resources, often through violence, policing bodies, and censoring.  

What I found interesting about Boyle’s use of law is the ways social imagination is very much a vehicle for the commodification and the privatization of knowledge productions. We see this in the politics of publishing in higher academia, music downloads (itunes), and film property rights. By social imagination, I am referring to what Boyle describes our human behavior and the assumptions we make about the world we live in (15). These assumptions become practices of privilege and oppression since it imagines a world of information regulation, policing, or censoring. Who has the right to claim authorship to information and who is merely recognized as the “source” of that information?  As Boyle asserts, we must always recognize the social, cultural, economic and political contexts in which we live in and the complex ways it informs our material realities.

With neoliberal practices justifying and expanding global capitalism, Boyle believes that the world will “broadly [be] divided between manipulators of information and ‘sources’” (177). However, he proposes an alternative “rhetoric of entitlement.” Boyle says,

It is important to see the lacunae and contentious assumptions involved in a particular society’s discourse of entitlement –the language in which entitlement to that particular society’s primary resources is both described and justified. To have a critical understanding of rhetoric of entitlement in an information society, one would need an analysis of conventional discourse about information, as well as of the more complicated, more sophisticated, and more highly formalized version of that discourse provided by the language of microeconomics (178).

Two processes are occurring here that don’t negate the “author”/ “source” relationship, rather complicate it in order to illustrate the complex influence they have in our conceptualization of intellectual property rights.  Therefore, to my understanding, it’s not so much that Boyle is demanding to give full intellectual property rights to the sources but to expand the public domain in order to address both the sources and audiences (183).


1.    Although I certainly agree with Boyle’s argument I wonder what does “sensitivity to the needs of both sources and audiences” look like to the law? If language plays a huge role in interpretation, how would the law construct sensitivity, and how different would sensitivity look like to the needs of the sources and the needs of the audiences?

2.    I am really curious to discuss the politics behind knowledge production in academic publishing. Why is plagiarism used as both a tool for protecting property rights and policing bodies? Think about the rules and regulations that exist regarding plagiarism, are they another form of social and intellectual control?

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