I’m designing an ethics course which will focus on the so-called copyright wars, engaging their legal issues, obviously, but focusing on their moral significance. A vital portion of the investigation will involve a look at the concept of property and, more specifically, intellectual property. Much of the discussion will center on the value of artistic creativity, the function of the piracy metaphor, and the tension that arises when contrary views of justice collide–cf. Plato’s Crito. Specifically, the nature of collage art and the practice of sampling, exemplified in the music of Girl Talk will be discussed Lawrence Lessig and the Creative Commons will make appearances. The emphasis on value–its reification in property, its intangible yet powerful social life, its status as an intrinsic good–will mark the ethical dimension of the course.
This might be a course in cultural, legal, or political theory. But it’s not: it’s a course in applied ethics. The usual suspects when it’s applied ethics we’re talking about are business, medical/bio, computer ethics, etc. It seems that these courses are too often simply a hasty application of a few standard ethical models–always under question, but nevertheless widely accepted and advocated–to the particular sector of society in question (health care institutions, corporations, etc.). But what about applied ethics as the application to society of another conception of the good life? That is, why not think about piracy as a way of life, not as a form of resistance or political subversion, but as a mode of existence that elevates creativity, creative expression, and sharing as the basic means of community building? This can be done.
Two new books on pirates and piracy that will surely be splendid reads, not to mention top-notch scholarship:
Adrian Johns, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates (Chicago, forthcoming 2010)
Daniel Heller-Roazen, The Enemy of All: Piracy and the Law of Nations (Zone, 2009)
I was fortunate enough to hear both Heller-Roazen and Johns speak here in Pittsburgh in the past few years. The former was here to discuss his book The Inner Touch and Johns was in the middle of working on the piracy book. Both of them made me wish I were an historian.