"That's not fair!" -- Sarah
"You say that so often. I wonder what your basis for comparison is." -- Jareth
(from Labyrinth)

In Shamans, Software, and Spleens (1996), James Boyle works to create a social theory of the information society – how we think about the production and transmission of information and how it relates to our ideas about property as well as private and public space. Boyle talks about information as a main source and form of wealth in Western societies and notes that people tend to think about information in terms of classic liberalism: as individual, as free, as a right. In this way, information lends itself well to being thought of as property, since property is often thought of in the same classically liberal way.

Boyle teases out some of the ideological tensions present in the idea of intellectual property One of those tensions involves roles and goals in the public and private realms, where he notes that private (or civil) law involves the restoration and maintenance of the status quo (and all its inequalities therein), while public (or criminal) law aims for equality (27). But is intellectual property considered public or private? On some level it is both, leading to many sticky issues of who is entitled to the ownership (and its benefits) of a particular piece of intellectual property. Boyle says that in some ways this problem seems to be resolved through the development of the idea of a romantic author, one whose originality is a private thing and as such can be seen as exclusive (and worthy of being called property).  

The idea of the romantic author – one who is seen to have the closest connection to a particular piece of intellectual property in terms of original contribution – is problematic for Boyle because that conceptions leads to an overabundance of intellectual property laws that ignore both the sources of the author’s work as well as the audiences. Whether the “work” is a literary creation or the management/manipulation of genetic data in the health and medical industries, the “author” is seen as the owner of an intangible property who then deserves all of the “rights” of management and profit associated with that property. However, this way of looking at intellectual property, since it does not acknowledge the sources as being part of the production of information, limits who can benefit from the transfer of information through society. Further, the more the idea of intellectual property is expanded – through copyright law and other means – the more it can limit the actual production of information, even though legal protections of intellectual property are seen as expanding that production.

My own critical analysis of Boyle’s argument centers around the idea of “production of information,” which he refers to frequently but does not cover in depth. In discussing information as part of a capitalist enterprise, it would seem to make sense to talk more about information as produced through labor. Boyle does mention labor sporadically, primarily to reference it as a question of an alternative way of thinking about how to compensate information producers (rather than conferring on them property rights). In a small paragraph in Chapter 6, he notes that a labor theory of property is limited by the idea/expression division that is contained in the notion of the romantic author (57). But who is conceiving of the author in terms of “original expression” without any sense of labor? Authors of all sorts today would likely argue that authorship is a “craft” (much as it was thought of in the 18th century and previous) and that the production, the labor, is what needs to be protected, not necessarily the sources.

Boyle does say that “information is costly to obtain” and that if “prices reflect available information, with no part of the price going to the producer of the information, then there is no incentive to produce more information” (37). I question the use of the word “incentive” in this statement, which seems to imply that any profit that comes from information production is a reward rather than compensation that has been earned through labor that might or might not have taken place anyway.


1) Is it possible to include information production in the broader system of labor as understood by modern capitalism? How could information producers be compensated for that labor without creating disadvantages for their sources or audiences (if such is possible)?

2) The discussion of John Moore made me think about Henrietta Lacks, the protagonist of this year’s Common Reading Book and from whose cancerous cervix came the first “immortal” cell line. Lacks’ story is somewhat similar to Moore’s in that she never received full disclosure and thus was not able to give informed consent for the use of her cells. Further, neither she nor any of her family received any of the profits that resulted from the use of the HeLa cells (which, among many other things, were instrumental in developing a polio vaccine). I’m wondering whether, for any of these kinds of cases, it would be possible to think of these “sources” as part of the labor of creation of information? Or is that going too far?

3)  I will fully admit to being a bit confoozled at present by the intricacies of information economics (Chapter Four). I don’t have a specific question as yet, but I’m hoping we can tease out how Boyle’s argument in this chapter plays out.

Quote at top was what I thought of while reading the chapter on insider trading. :)

1/15/2013 03:29:04 am

Boyle does critique the notion of incentive throughout the book, but I think you are right, we need to map out what do non-monetary incentives look like and are there other "frames" that would be more helpful? In that, we are on the same page as Boyle in attempting to re-frame the way information and IP are mobilized.


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