Freud On Group Production (And ‘Intellectual Property’)

In ‘Group Pyschology’, (Standard Edition, XVIII, 79; as cited in Peter Gay, Freud for Historians, Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 150), Sigmund Freud writes:

[A]s far as intellectual achievement is concerned, it remains indeed true that the great decisions of the work of thought, the consequential discoveries and solutions of problems, are possible only to the individual, laboring in solitude. But even the mass mind is capable of mental creations of genius, as proved above all by language itself, as well as by folk song, folklore and the like. Beyond that, it remains unsettled just how much the individual thinker or creative writer owed to the stimulus of the crowd among which he lives, whether he is more than the completer of mental work in which the others had participated at the same time.

The Grand Old Man of Psychoanalysis is, as usual, quite perspicuous here (As Gay notes in a parenthetical remark, his concluding ‘reasonable aside…joins, once again, individual and social psychology.’) His choice of examples of the works produced by ‘the mass mind’ are, in particular, telling: language, folk song, and folklore.  Without the first, there is no language to be used as the medium of expression by the novelist, the poet, the writer; no home, as it were, for them to set up safe camp and experiment, boldly, perhaps striking out where none dared have gone before. Idiosyncrasy must have an orthodoxy to pit itself against. Without the second a giant repository of sources for classical and popular music alike is inaccessible.  Bach, it must be remembered, drew heavily on German folk music for some of his most famous compositions; rock and roll owes its provenance to the blues etc. As in language, folk songs and music provide a foundation upon which many an impressive superstructure, sometimes radically different from its lower levels, may be built up. Without the third, similarly, the wellsprings of stories–long and short alike, plays, novels, dries up. The child hears these at her mother’s and grandparent’s knees; she learns them in school; and again, further sorties into territories visible, but not yet ventured into by them, are suggested.

The ‘individual, laboring in solitude’ is not denied any of the credit that is her due by her drawing upon these sources of inspiration. It is her particular and peculiar utilization and deployment of these source materials that is the cause of our appreciation and praise. Our acknowledgement of the genius’ work only tips over into fantasy–and counterproductive restraints on borrowing and creative amendment–when we imagine that her productions  issued as singular emanations from her, and only her, alone. Moreover, the true value of the genius’ contributions does not lie in the solitary splendor of her literary, visual, or musical creations; rather, it is that those creations, by being poured back into the collective cultural potlatch, become fecund sources of further artistic production for those who follow in her footsteps.

We are born into a made world; when we leave, we’ve laid a couple of bricks ourselves. With the mortar and materials of those who came before us.

Copyright Protection for Academic Works: A Bad Idea, But Who’ll Bell The Cat?

Richard Posner has written yet another interesting critique of patent and copyright law; it includes a remark of particular interest to me:

At the other extreme is academic books and articles (apart from textbooks), which are produced as a byproduct of academic research that the author must conduct in order to preserve his professional reputation and that would continue to be produced even if not copyrightable at all. It is doubtful that there is any social benefit to the copyrighting of academic work other than textbooks, which require a lot of work and generally do not enhance the author’s academic reputation and may undermine it.

Posner is exactly right. When it comes to academic works like research monographs and journal articles copyright law is a severe handicap for the creator(s). Restrictions on copying, distribution, and the making of derivative works all work against the author(s) because every one of these restrictions ensures that the most valuable outcome to be derived from an academic work is inhibited: readership is limited as is the central ‘income’ forthcoming from a reputation economy. In most academic works, copyright passes to the publisher; as every aspiring academic comes to realize quickly, one of the essential steps in getting an article or a book published is the signing of the copyright release (or transfer) form; the ‘work’ is no longer yours; step back and observe another entity control access to material that only benefits you if access to is unrestricted and indeed, positively facilitated.

Unfortunately, reform in this domain appears unlikely because the academic world is run by the terrible trio of Promotion & Tenure Committees, ‘Prestigious’ Academic Presses & Journals, and Pompous Seniors Who Refuse To Take the Lead. And animated by the Matthew Principle.  Till P&T committees start to recognize work published in non-traditional venues, and concomitantly, the ‘prestige’ associated with traditional academic presses and journal publishing groups comes to be associated with them, not much will change in the current situation. Much good would be done if senior academics, those with tenured full professorships at  Famous Universities[tm] start publishing their work in non-traditional venues like open access journals and new presses committed to open access books. They have plenty of wealth to spare in this reputation economy; junior academics would benefit a great deal from their largesse in this domain. Their hoarding and accumulation does little to change matters, and ensures the perpetuation of an archaic and ultimately counterproductive model of academic publishing. .

Note: While Posner is not critical about copyright protection for textbooks, some textbooks in my field, philosophy, are anthologies of material available in the public domain, with little value added by the editors (perhaps some discussion questions). These are then marketed at exorbitant prices. I remain hopeful that as more public domain philosophy is digitized and placed online, these textbooks will be phased out in the near future.  And of course, more importantly, many anthologies bear the price they do because they include copyrighted material for which fees have to be paid: excerpts from journal articles or books, which should never have been copyrighted in the first place.

Posner, Apple v. Motorola, James Watt, and the Steam Engine That Couldn’t

Having brought up ‘intellectual property’ yesterday, I figured it might be a good idea to follow-up with a couple of related notes today.

First, some interesting news: Judge Richard Posner has ruled that the Apple v. Motorola patent infringement case be dismissed in its entirety. Apple had accused Motorola of violating four of its patents; Motorola had responded with a claim in return. The two have been in litigation since 2010; one shudders to think of the legal bills racked up, transaction costs that could have been spent on research and development by two innovative technology outfits.

Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica notes that

Judge Richard Posner previously canceled a jury trial in Chicago in the case, and then castigated both Apple and Motorola while calling the entire US patent system chaos….Noting that dismissals without prejudice allow suits to be refiled, Posner made it clear that this one would be dismissed with prejudice. “It would be ridiculous to dismiss a suit for failure to prove damages and allow the plaintiff [Apple] to refile the suit so that he could have a second chance to prove damages. This case is therefore dismissed with prejudice,” Posner wrote. Posner had previously ruled that proposed testimony from experts put forth by both sides would be inadmissible, making it difficult to support any claims for damages or injunctions.

And that isn’t all. In some telling commentary on the current lunacy of the world of patent litigation, Posner

[C]omplained that Apple’s attempt to get an injunction restricting the sale of Motorola phones would have “catastrophic effects” on the mobile device market and consumers. He further criticized Motorola for trying to use a standards-essential patent to get an injunction against Apple.

Second, in keeping with the ‘Twas ever thus-theme invoked yesterday, here is a little episode that should have warned us about patenting’s costs. In Against Intellectual Monopoly, Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine remind us of  the story of James Watt and the steam engine: the patents he was granted for it and his subsequent aggressive deployment of the law to crack down on possible competitors, all the while dissipating his innovative energies in litigation rather than designing better steam engines. In the end,

The evidence suggests that Watt’s efforts to use the legal system to inhibit competition set back the industrial revolution by a decade or two. The granting of the 1769 and, especially, of the 1775 patents likely delayed the mass adoption of the steam engine: innovation was stifled until his patents expired; and very few steam engines were built during the period of Watt’s legal monopoly. From the number of innovations that occurred immediately after the expiration of the patent, it appears that Watt’s competitors simply waited until then before releasing their own innovations….Watt’s inventive skills were badly allocated: we find him spending more time engaged in legal action to establish and preserve his monopoly than he did in the actual improvement and production of his engine. From a strictly economic point of view Watt did not need such a long lasting patent – it is estimated that by 1783 – seventeen years before his patent expired – his enterprise broke even; so every dollar that came after was pure gravy. (Introduction, pp. 3)