Into the Ether

Common as Air:
Revolution, Art, and Ownership

by Lewis Hyde
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010, 306 pp.
In 1983, Lewis Hyde published The Gift, a meditation on gift economies where art and ideas escaped the indignity of a market value. As a poet, he wanted to show that “the commerce of the creative spirit” could not flourish as pure commodity exchange. His advice on how an artist might feed herself under capitalism was thin, but as historian Jackson Lears noted, “[I]t is unfair to upbraid him for the unavoidable banality of his advice. What he has done is to freshen stale thinking about consumer culture by reminding us that the focus for criticism should not be material goods but the attitudes people bring to their exchange.” Our public life in enriched, Hyde argued, by the gift relationships inherent in producing art, sharing research, or giving blood. Some kinds of value are lost on the auction block.

In his new book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, Hyde has brought his gift-inflected perspective to bear on intellectual property. Common as Air is meant, Hyde says, “to be a defense of the cultural commons, that vast store of unowned ideas, inventions, and works of art that we have inherited from the past and continue to enrich.” The villains in this book are corporations that have successfully lobbied to extend copyright law, thereby restricting speech and expression. The heroes are those who resist this encroachment on the cultural commons. He takes as his moral guides the Founding Fathers, who intended the creative commons to be “the groundwork for democratic self-governance, encouraging creative community, and enabling citizens to become public actors, both civic and creative.”

However, the book does not engage critically with the Internet as a new medium, and in failing to do so, it misses a set of players in the debate who are not villains or heroes but victims. The Internet has made a mess of the niceties of copyright law, and digital unruliness has stirred widespread anxiety over the ability of artists, writers, and scholars simply to make a living from their work. In the end, Hyde sides with those, like Lawrence Lessig, who speak primarily about free access to ideas. He sidesteps the question of how creative labor can sustain itself, a question just as critical to the survival of a cultural commons as open access. Hyde’s recurring framework, the gift economy, privileges the free flow of knowledge over its commodification, but does so within a distinctively modern conception of citizenship. The fulfilled person, or the good citizen, as imagined by many cyber activists, is one who has complete access to information. Hyde’s civic approach to the gift economy of knowledge is indebted to this perspective.

Hyde perceives culture and ideas as common resource, whose maintenance as a public good is a prerequisite for informed, empowered c...

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