Nietzsche’s ‘Robber-Genius,’ the Public Domain, and Intellectual Property

Intellectual property‘–and its rather ludicrous understanding of it by our modern legal and political regimes–is often a concern of mine on this blog.  To this end, I have, for instance, noted David Mitchell’s recounting of the provenance of his novel Cloud Atlas and Schopenhauer’s caustic remarks on the influence of copyright on writing.

My choice of examples, spanning a century and invoking a modern novelist and a nineteenth-century philosopher,  is deliberate.

Mitchell’s remarks highlighted the importance of the cultural inheritance of each author, artist, or creator: the rich store of previously produced books, poems, artworks of all stripes that serve as raw material for future assemblage, reworking and reinterpretation. In noting the importance of this cultural heritage, we are led thus, to what James Boyle has described as ‘property’s antonym, property’s outside:’ the public domain. This ‘opposite of property’ is, as Boyle correctly notes, ‘much more important when we come to the world of ideas, information, expression and invention.’ (James Boyle, The Public Domain, Yale University Press, pp xiv-xv). But of course, in noting the importance of those works which inform every artists’ work, we are also led to a reconfiguration of our understanding of ‘creativity,’ a little less lightning-bolt, and a little more magpie.

Which brings me to nineteenth-century philosophers. In quoting Schopenhauer in that post, I had wanted to: a) make a ‘Twas ever thus’-flavored point about the persistence of concerns about intellectual property and b) invoke a well-entrenched figure in our literary and intellectual canon.

So, today, I turn to Nietzsche. From Human, All Too Human: A Book For Free Spirits (translated by RJ Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1986; this version includes Volume 2: Assorted Opinions and Maxims, from which I quote below.) Volume 2, Section 110–on page 238–reads:

The robber-genius. – The robber-genius in the arts, who knows how to deceive even discriminating spirits, originates when anyone has from his youth on naively regarded every good thing not expressly the legal property of some particular person as free for all to plunder. Now, all the good things of past ages and masters lie freely about, hedged round and guarded by the reverential awe of the few who know them; by virtue of the lack of this feeling in him, the robber-genius is able to bid these few defiance and to accumulate for himself an abundance of riches that itself evokes reverence and awe in its turn.

(An alternate translation titles this section ‘The pirate-genius’, which too, resonates nicely with today’s topic.)

In this little remark, Nietzsche captures, quite well, I think, the artist’s original inclination to draw freely upon the world to create for himself, a little corner he can call his own. The language of ‘robber,’  ‘plunder,’ ‘guarded,’ ‘legal property,’ ‘hedged round,’ notes the context in which this work might take place: the artist’s appropriations are often termed ‘theft,’ and there is, as always, the misguided ‘reverential awe’ of those ignorant of the nature of artistic work to deal with. But the artist, compelled to act in the only way he knows how, is easily able to summon up the ‘defiance’ needed to borrow, beg, and steal, on his way to producing works whose origins will soon enough be shrouded in enough obscurity to provoke the same ill-directed protections.

Note: This post continues my In Nietzsche You Can Find a Line for Everything series.

2 thoughts on “Nietzsche’s ‘Robber-Genius,’ the Public Domain, and Intellectual Property

  1. You’ve made me think of the quote … most often attributed to T.S. Eliot … “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” All artists have influences. I think that’s unavoidable. They succeed by taking those influences and synthesizing them into something new through their own creativity. I’ve always felt that’s what Eliot meant, anyhow.

    1. Peter,

      Great quote – yes, that’s exactly right. I think it’s the ability to draw upon, and synthesize the materials that culture makes available to us – in new and interesting ways, that is the hallmark of the great artists.

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