Intellectual Property in Oral and Literate Cultures
written in 2001, I think
At this moment in 2001, intellectual property is a hot topic. The right to own an idea is being debated in fields as disparate as medicine and the music industry. In historical context, however, intellectual property is a relatively new concept. The first modern copyright law only emerged in 1710 and the People’s Republic of China did not have a copyright system until 1991. In contrast, the first known cave painting dates to 31,000 BC. Humans have been creating for thousands of years, but those expressions were only defined as personal property quite recently. The exact moment of this definition is still debated by experts: some say it came with the first copyright law, some say it began with the printing press in 1436, and others say that it emerged with “the artist with a markedly individual personality” in 6th century BC Greece (Ploman and Hamilton 5). Regardless of the specific point of division, copyright as we know it today was not present in ancient oral cultures (Bettig 11) and is not present in modern oral cultures like that of the Balinese (Ploman and Hamilton 4). Why the concept of intellectual property is evident in highly literate cultures and not in oral cultures can perhaps be best understood in terms of the social and political context of their respective historical periods. One explanation that is that the chosen mediums of oral and literate cultures are qualitatively different and that each engenders a different set of social norms to guide intellectual production. What this paper seeks to do is to pursue this line of questioning by discerning what the medium was for each culture, analyzing the nature of each medium, and, finally, explaining how the medium determined whether or not the concept of intellectual property emerged.
Some assumptions that underlie the analysis undertaken here are a specific definition of intellectual property and an understanding of the scope of this analysis. First, intellectual property can be broadly defined as the concept that ideas given physical form remain the property of the one who thought them up (Boyle 54). Some of the most basic justifications for its existence are: 1) The author should benefit from the fruits of his labor 2) Authors should be encouraged to create new works 3) The investment that is necessary for the creation of works will be more easily obtained if protection exists 4) The author has a moral right to their personal expression, and 5) For reasons of national prestige (Ploman and Hamilton 24). Second, the scope of this analysis is intellectual production in the form of poetry and literature, oral or written, and the word art is used in this sense.