Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Be careful what you wish for, Utopian thinkers, in case it comes to pass. For almost a century, from William Morris to Marshall McLuhan, cultural visionaries looked forward to an age when the distinction between the professional artist or scholar and the talented citizen would fall away; when technology would allow us all to overcome the division of labour and delight one another with our freely given crafts and skills. Well, come the digital era, and it happened, fast. Amateur hour turned into amateur planet. Even The Sun now wants its readers to fill the news pages. And the likes of MySpace (cost to News Corp: $580m) and YouTube (cost to Google: $1.65bn) need no further hype from this column. Walter Benjamin proposed; and Rupert Murdoch profited. Rusty on your Benjamin? Look him up in Wikipedia.

In a small corner of this online galaxy, the old principle of literary copyright is fast fading away. Google, whose Book Search programme for the digitisation of existing titles kick-started the current debate, may be acting like the pirates of cyberspace - but pirates could end up on thrones. Meanwhile, the vogue for blogs-as-books has concentrated minds on how (or how not) to take paper-less literature to market. On the crest of this wave surfs Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford law professor whose idea of "creative commons" proposes several sorts of halfway house between the traditional licensing of artistic property, and an online free-for-all (see creativecommons.org).

We shall hear more of all this, especially when the Treasury-commissioned Gowers Review of intellectual property sees the light of day. Yet behind wrangles over copyright and its wrongs lie deeper issues of value and vocation. Writers want and deserve recompense for talent and toil. But how many should ever expect to become full-time, long-haul professionals? And what happens to the vast panoply of able authors - from poets to translators to cutting-edge novelists - who will never trade their gift into a commodity priced highly enough to secure a livelihood? Countless great writers, after all, have been amateurs - in the sense of dedicated lovers, not hacks for hire.

Luckily, a remarkable republished book will help writers and readers (and, if they care, even publishers) focus their sense of how the creative mind and the commercial arena meet - or fail to meet. Lewis Hyde - poet, thinker and once an alcohol counsellor - published The Gift in 1983. With a postscript that links his arguments to the internet age that has since dawned, Canongate's handsome new edition (£15) neatly proves his closing point: that the artistic gift and the traded commodity can - sometimes - work in harmony.

As he strides readably between poetry and anthropology, economics and theology, Hyde explores the rifts that divide artistic labour from the rules of the marketplace. The book changes tack as it moves. It begins in a mood of hippie-era disdain for cash culture and "commodity art". Yet, after intriguing discussions of Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, Hyde concludes that the "gift exchange" of true art and commercial markets "need not be wholly separate spheres". His 2006 afterword even proposes a tweak of copyright law for the benefit of creators as a whole.

At this particular moment, The Gift matters most because it eloquently shows that precious ideas and artefacts commonly have a high long-term value, but a low short-term price. Great art, and thought, has often failed to pay its way. And copyright, however strictly policed, never makes or keeps a Whitman or a Wittgenstein. Yes, writers should oppose the rising danger of rip-offs by the digital buccaneers. At the same time, much worthwhile online (and offline) culture will, and should, aspire to stay open, free - and, if possible, out of Murdoch's and Google's reach.

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