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Book Review: The Public Domain by James Boyle

Over summer I read a bunch of books, including “The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind” by James Boyle.

In this book Boyle explains why the Public Domain is important and shows how it is being eroded by current Intellectual Property (IP) laws and practices. IP is defined as Copyrights, Patents, and Trademarks.

The book begins by explaining why we need IP, and then moves on to outline “The Jefferson Warning” – some basic principles that should govern the implementation of an IP system in society.

The central argument is that the scope of IP should be limited to only cover the minimum required to create the effect (an incentive to create) desired.

The third chapter compares the enclosure (migration of property from public shared ownership to private controlled ownership) of land with the enclosure of intangible things and asks if this is a good idea.

The Internet Threat is explained in chapter 4, and this outlines how the threat of costless copying has been framed to law makers in a way that (possibly) overstates the impact the internet might have on IP.

Chapter 5 is an allegory call the Farmers Tale which helps us to understand the concept of trespass, and how this relates to the DMCA.

Chapter 6 has the history of the Ray Charles song I Got A Woman. The song was a product of what went before it, and has been the source for other material since. Boyle argues convincingly that this is the stuff of culture, but that the scope of IP law is too wide, shutting down important cultural innovation.

Chapter 7 moves the argument into the field of science and technology with two case studies. The second of these is a look at synthetic biology – something I knew nothing about – and it was interesting to get some understanding of the concerns of those involved in this bleeding edge research.

A Creative Commons is dealt with in chapter 8 where Boyle draws parallels between the CC movement and those of Free and Open Source Software.

Chapter 9 is an expose of the processes used to change laws, and how these changes often are not supported by factual research. In the example used, the copyrighting of databases in the EU, Boyle shows that the law change did not have the desired effect.

In Chapter 10 Boyle asks if we can learn from the environmental movement; an understanding of these issues has become normalised over time. Will this happen with the Public Domain? Can society get to the point where there is a common understanding of the issues at stake?

I liked this book a lot. If you are having trouble understanding the Public Domain and it relationship to IP, you should read it. Boyle moves you from the familiar to the unfamiliar, and frames his arguments in a logical way and provides plenty of background material.

Boyle is clearly in favour of a strong Public Domain, but presents both sides of the debate in a way that helps you understand the issues from new perspectives.

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