24 March 2005


One of the big debates in the philosophy of art—and not a big debate in publishing, although it probably will be before long—concerns "ownership" of materials that don't have a clear, single creator… and sometimes even those that do.

On the one hand, we've got the question of owning cultural artifacts. The most obvious example of this problem is museum collections. The British Library just lost out on one such battle, being required to return a rare book to its apparent point of origin: Benevento, Italy. This raises a number of problems all by itself. Unusually for a museum piece, there is a true and distinct point of origin that it intimately connected to the object. Much of the time, an "artifact" will invoke a larger culture more generally with little true geographic origin, or at least little reference to a specific point. Consider, for example, return of Egyptian artifacts to Egypt. Most, if not all, of such artifacts would end up on display in Cairo—which, geographically and historically, isn't all that close to their "origin points" farther up the Nile. This question gets really complicated when we draw in nonphysical artifacts, such as what happens when a song about hunting for lion meat ends up in a children's semi-musical in which the "hero" is a lion. I don't claim to have an answer to this issue; I'm only disturbed that the questions aren't being asked enough. But then, the last question centers on Los Angeles and its culture; as the Kingston Trio remarks at the beginning of a live recording of the song in question, "Well, Los Angeles really is quite an intellectual town—and we were lucky enough to run into him down there." (Since I grew up in Seattle, bashing LA is almost as often in season as is bashing the French.)

On the other hand, we've got too many questions on gender determinativism in publishing. This whole argument is just a corollary of the rivalrousness fallacy in intellectual property. Intellectual property appears to fail of rivalrousness, and therefore "not be property," because more than one person can use the "property" at once. The problem with this view is that it's not true. More than one person can create and use distinct copies of the intellectual property at once, true enough; but notice what has happened: Now the identity of the property has been subsumed in the identity of the copies. Similarly, that's what happens with the "women authors" (or "black authors," or "gay gun-toting Catholic authors," or indeed any other "[group identity] authors"): the origin's identity has been subsumed into the copy's identity (or the product's identity, as the case may be). A created categorical imperative gets treated as important, essentially because someone has decided to create that categorical imperative. Jane Rogers's comment toward the end of the referenced article is particularly revealing:

Women writers are only too aware of how critics like to pop them into boxes (DDD) where they can be ignored. Witness a conversation I had with Pat Barker about her switch of subject matter from working-class women and prostitutes to men in the trenches: "I knew I had to get out of the female ghetto to be taken seriously as a writer." She won the Booker for The Ghost Road.

Just how many publishing stories can one find on the head of a pin, anyway?