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Tech Q&A

James Boyle

Describe your latest project.
It is a book about the public domain — the realm of material that is free for anyone to copy or build upon without permission or fee. The book argues that we are "enclosing" the public domain, locking it up with copyright extensions and patents over gene sequences and business methods. I say that we suffer from a kind of cultural agoraphobia, a fear of openness, that leads us to undervalue the power of open systems, networks, and uncontrolled ideas. That sounds abstract. I try to make it concrete with stories about the creation of soul music, and why it might be illegal today, about synthetic biology and file-sharing networks, about Jefferson's philosophy of intellectual property, internet protest songs, and bacteria that are engineered to take pictures. Researching it was a delight. And then the publisher let me publish it under a Creative Commons license, which means that it can be read online for free, as well as bought at bookstores such as Powell's. That seemed appropriate!

  1. The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind
    $36.75 New Hardcover add to wishlist
    "In this delightful volume, Professor Boyle gives the reader a masterful tour of the intellectual property wars, the fight over who will control the information age, pointing the way toward the promise — and peril — of the future. A must-read for both beginner and expert alike!" Jimmy Wales, founder, Wikipedia

    "[C]omprehensive and biting....It is the first book I would give to anyone who wants to understand the causes, consequences, and solutions in the debates over copyrights, patents, and the public domain of the past decade and a half." Yochai Benkler, Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies, Harvard Law School

What inspires you to sit down and write?
Wanting to tell stories, to share ideas. The feel of a sentence that you want someone to read. Making people laugh.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
I loathed school so much that it inspired me to leave when I was 16, which turned out to be wonderful, because university was as great as high school was bad. That's a kind of inspiration, I suppose.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
I score pretty low, except on the science fiction side. But Cory Doctorow is a friend of mine, so my vicarious geek cred is high. And I have co-written a comic book, and am writing a new one about musical borrowing — so I guess that fits into the aesthetic. And I was online before the Web... so maybe I am a geek after all.

Chess or video games?

What do you do for relaxation?
Read and play volleyball.

What's your favorite blog right now?
I don't have a constant one. Right now, I like Marginal Revolution and their debates over the apparent collapse of the world financial system. I enjoy reading smart people whose worldview is very different than my own.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
I enjoyed both.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
Doctor Dolittle. Kipling's Kim. Masses of golden age science fiction.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
English. Math.

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
Show me my next book. Finished.

By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
It depends. I really think we have a choice. One path actually makes the web work for science as well as it works for porn or shoes. It leaves open the basic building blocks of science, provides open access to scientific literature, and unleashes the power of the semantic web by tying together data sets, articles, and research results in a knowledge ecology more fruitful than anything we have now. The other path is a fallow set of walled private gardens of knowledge, protected by digital-rights management and strong copyright enforcement, a world where the fundamental components of new technologies such as synthetic biology are patented. (Imagine trying to develop computer science, if someone had a patent over Boolean algebra.) It's one of the most fundamental decisions in the direction of our culture. I think the choice is a real one and it is a tragedy that we don't see it.

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James Boyle is William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law, Duke University School of Law. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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