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An Introduction to the Class (Text as Property/Property as Text)

Module by: Christopher Kelty, Scott McGill. E-mail the authors

Summary: An introduction to the Rice University course "Text as Property/Property as Text" which seeks to compare ancient and modern conceptions of authorship, ownership and alternative traditions of writing, stewardship, allusion, and distribution.

Text as Property/Property as Text: Intellectual Property Across the Ages (Anth 321/Clas 311)

This class is an experiment in comparison. It stretches over millennia and includes a pretty outrageous diversity of material, but it is collected together under the assumption that it can be compared and contrasted by thinking about the concepts of authorship, ownership, circulation, property, control, imitation, re-use, appropriation, forgery, plagiarism etc.

Note:

For details see the Syllabus

Such comparison needs a baseline, of course, and that is what the first seven weeks of the class is meant to provide. By halfway through the class, you should have a pretty extensive grasp of the following things: modern intellectual property, ancient Roman and Greek manuscript traditions, modern definitions of "information", and both ancient and modern conceptions of "author", "genius", and "owner". From this baseline, we will proceed to compare a wide variety of artistic, scientific, literary and real-life things.

The second half of the class, however, is meant to introduce you to a number of different alternative conceptions of authorship and ownership, both in the modern world and in the ancient world. So you can think of this class as not only a comparison between ancient and modern, but a comparison of modern with modern and ancient with ancient. Every era has its own dominant and lesser known traditions. In the end, we hope to leave you with a much richer sense of just how narrowly most dominant versions of authorship and ownership are, and how many other traditions, experiments, movements, communities, and practices there have been in the past and continue to be in the present.

Anthropology and Cultural Comparison

One way of understanding how this class is structured is to think about how anthropology views its object. When anthropologists study the Bororo, for example, they treat them as a separate culture-- even if this is just a fiction since these days the Bororo are wearing Nikes and want their MTV. Nonetheless, the Bororo culture is assumed to include a set of practices, institutions, laws, political organizations, economic systems and religion that are presumed to be relatively stable--and more importantly different from an equally stable "us" (which usually means the Euro-American traditions of democracy and capitalism and Judeo-Christianity). Occasionally, this kind of comparison is enlightening and leads to a better understanding not just of another culture, but of both cultures being compared. Such comparison could be conducted between any two "cultures" so long as one is willing to get to know each of them in sufficient detail, and to keep an open mind about them.

In this class, the two "cultures" are 1) the modern global economic and legal "culture" (stretching from about the 17th century to now) and 2) the Ancient Greek and Roman Empires (stretching from c. 500B.C.E to about 200A.C.E. Within these two enormous stretches of time, we will the study the particular practices of reading, writing, interpreting, authorizing, owning, buying, borrowing, sharing, stealing and selling texts (poetry and literature), works of science and art, or other important documents. We will also consider how the modern notion of "information" can be compared to things like writing, reading and understanding.

It is always important to remember that we can also compare within these different traditions. Even if the "culture" of the Bororo is relatively stable over hundreds of years, that doesn't mean there are alternatives within it. Alternative, underground, oppositional, criminal and critical traditions exist in every culture. It is only on CNN and at the White House where everyone is said to believe the same thing.

Law Custom and Convention

The class will focus primarily on the diverse meanings of authorship and ownership. In the modern period, all forms of information and entertainment, as well as much or our lives are deeply dependent on formal law (i.e. that made by national legislatures and courts), especially intellectual property law. In the ancient world, formal written law was not quite so pervasive--however, that does not mean there were not strong customs or conventions for how life and literature were governed. Similarly, the function and role of literature and art in the modern period can be contrasted with that in the ancient period. Sometimes what we read will seem arcane and impenetrable (whether it is legal jargon, scholarly jargon or difficult poetry), but remember that we are interested in understanding not just the texts themselves, but the contexts as well (see the module Tips for Reading). Over the course of the semester, we will consider the following questions in more detail. Consider how you would answer them now.

What are some functions of formal law?

  • Constraint, repression, regulation, domination?
  • A prediction of how the courts, sovereigns or police will respond to some action?
  • A way to actively change the attitudes and goals of people?
  • A means of control and security?

What's the difference between formal law and informal customs or conventions? Can you think of examples in modern life where there are laws but no customs, customs but no laws, or where both coexist?

Why does law or custom govern literature or information at all? Why isn't there absolute freedom to say or write anything?

Why is intellectual property different from regular property? Why does it require different laws?

What's the difference between plagiarism and theft of intellectual property?

How are law, custom, convention, sovereignty, power and control related?

What's the difference between private and public censorship?

Literature, Media, Information, Text, Manuscript

In addition to the issues of law and custom, we will also be considering a wide variety of created objects: poetry, prose, plays, commentary, philosophy, scientific texts and scholarship. We will also consider music, performed poetry and theatre, film and television etc. The variety of different media is very large, but we will consider both what they say, and how they say it at the same time. Intellectual property law is concerned with the relationship between ideas, expressions and the manner in which they are made tangible, but is possible to ask similar questions about all kinds of objects and media.

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