barrington bayley: who owns the noosphere

This article is available here by kind courtesy of the author. Originally published in the BSFA magazine Vector, issue 113 in October 1983. Copyright Barrington J. Bayley 1983-2000.

From what cause I will not bother to go into, I regularly receive batches of Irish newspapers. These often - nearly always, in fact - have an unintentionally comic aspect and should be required reading for those among us who imagine the Irish joke an English invention. Slightly bizarre, from the English point of view, is the religious content, which these days - even Ireland having now failed to hold back the tide of prurience - is sometimes forced to exist jowl by cheek (in that order) with full-colour photos of naked girls.

One such religious columnist is Friar D'Arcy, who recently devoted his page to a sermon on the practise of taping pop music from the radio instead of going out and buying the record.

The practise, the good friar warned his readers, breaks the eight commandment. It is definitely theft. It robs artists and record companies of their earnings and creates unemployment.

It would be evil to speculate on what friends or acquintanses Friar D'Arcy might have in the popular music industry. We all know that the private and also the pirated taping of music and now video has been of concern to copyright holders for some time, so much that music companies have tried to persuade the government to put a tax on blank tapes, the revenue to be turned over directly to them as compensation for their losses. They also play the ethical card. Why not? Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel; what is certain is that the ethical plea has been the first resort of every scoundrel great and small.

A broadly similar piece of villainy, one that does not even have copyright law to back it, has succeeded on the part of a guild of British writers, who have persuaded parliament to introduce what is called Public Lending Right. The argument goes like this: authors are being robbed because public libraries buy books and then lend them to lots of people to read. A book should only be read by the person who buys it (this isn't stated nearly as badly, of course). Therefore authors should be compensated... it is unfortunate for the music companies that so few MPs are pop singers. The fact is that this sort of thing is an old, old, old story. Adam Smith wrote about it in Wealth of Nations: "Rarely do people of the same occupation gather together, even if only for merriment, that it does not end in some plot to defraud the public." Mostly these schemes must either ignore, in their greed, or else try to circumvent, one of the most tested laws of exchange economics: that the more a thing costs the less of it will be bought. Since this law will not be broken, the conspiracies are apt to come a cropper.

In the present case, the circumvention takes the form of having the paymaster a goverment department, not the public libraries themselves. We shall now see how long that lasts.

The reason why I mention all this is that Friar D'Arcy's intimations of sin got me thinking about that peculiar convention of modern civilisation: legal ownership of intangibles. Until a couple of hundred years or so ago (I'm poor with dates) there was no such thing. Ownership meant ownership of something having mass and substance. An author owned a literary work of his, for instance, only while he had possession of the manuscript! Once the publisher had issued it, any other publisher was at liberty to copy it and issue his own edition, so that if a book proved popular rival editions were apt to hit the street with alacrity. Until, that is, certain parties found a way to protect their expectations of profit, again with the help of friends in the parliament.

When you think about it, and leaving 'ethics' aside for the moment, legal claim to intangibles is a pretty odd thing. It is rather as if I thought up a particularly good joke and told it to you. Later on I came across you telling the same joke to a third party. "Stop!" I thunder. "That is my joke you are telling! You will hear from my solicitor in the morning."

Or imagine that I once wrote and had published a story all copies of which have since perished. I can't even remember it myself properly. The only true record that exists is in the mind of a deluded science fiction reader who thought it a fabulous story and memorised it word for word.

In law, I own what is in his head. If he wants to set it down on paper, he may not publish copies of it without my permission.

What, then, is the ethics of copyright? That's what I've been trying to explain: there isn't any, it's only a convention. And I haven't much doubt that it is a doomed convention.

To go back to Friar D'Arcy's musical tapes, why is it that the law of copyright has held pretty well for literature for centuries, but is already crumbling for recorded music? It is simply because copying a book, by whatever method, is still an expensive procedure. But attempting to maintain sound copyright in a world of ubiquituous cassette recorders flies straight in the fact of the fundamental law of exchange economics.

This law may be expressed as follows: whatever I pay you to provide me with a good or service must have less value to me that the effort of providing it for myself.

If I have worked all day to earn £20, and we are sitting at table together, it is unlikely I would accede to your demand for my £20 if you are to pass me the salt, when it lies only a few inches beyond my reach. (I say 'unlikely' in deference to the calculus of probabilities. In my case the probability is not vanishingly small; it is classically zero.)

Makers of music tapes are said to be seeking a way of putting a signal on the tapes that makes them uncopyable. I have not heard that they have succeeded, and if they do a countering filter will not be long in coming. Producers of software for home computers, which at present is also on tape cassette, face the same problem. Some of the mushrooming software businesses use various tricks, such as disabling the Break key, arranging for the program to wipe itself out if Save is entered, etc., to prevent their programs being saved from RAM. There is a tape on sale in the USA which tells you how to get round these measures. Other firms don' t bother, and indeed it is quite futile if they buyer has some decent recording equipment; he can just copy the tape.

So in these spheres ownership of intangible 'creative work' is already unenforceable, whatever the law says, and will likely die the death. After all, why is it that you can patent an invention but not a philosophical idea or the discover of a physical law? Just as much mental labour might be involved, and just as much originality. The answer is simply, how would you enforce it?

On the premise that graphic reproduction will eventually go the way of sound reproduction, i.e. it will become easy and cheap and available to all, the same is due to happen to literary copyright.

It's a-coming, boys! You'd better get used to it!

Good heavens! Does this mean writers won't make anything out of what they write? Then there won' t be any writers ! After all, a neighbourhood friend insists on informing me that I only became a writer with the intention of writing a 'best-seller' and becoming a millionaire. (If a person like myself mixes with the common folk he discovers a curious fable. Painters are all penniless, struggling bohemians. But writers are all wealthy, suave men-about-town, living 'the hoi loife'. People get confused on having me pointed out. I am not a person to whom one automatically touches one's forelock. But I should be. Something is wrong.)

It's useless to argue. "You are absolutely right, sir!" I sententiously tell my friend, and quoting Dr Johnson, "No one but a fool ever wrote, except for money!" And donning my clown's nose, I blow soap bubbles at him.

Yes, there is always going to be a living for writers. The consequence of the above is that a book, whether incarnated in ink and paper, laser disk, silicon, gallium arsenide, memory bubbles, or War and Peace encoded in DNA, will cost more than the blank on which it is inscribed, but not so much more that it would be worth your while to borrow a copy and duplicate it. Whatever deal authors and publishers make with one another will have to take cognisance of that. I expect authors will still be able to demand royalties. Whether an author will be able to become stinking rich, as a few now can, I don't know. What does it matter? It isn't necessary to the continuance of civilisation: for writers and pop singers to be paid like film stars, or for the film stars to be paid like film stars.

(Of course, I am over-simplifying. There can be other considerations that make people willing to pay more for a bought copy - better quality, the desire for an original edition. etc. Then again, some people think the 'incarnation' substance will disappear from the market place altogether, and you'll pay a small sum to have a book piped into your files as data down the telephone. Well, maybe.)

For the products of literary effort to become public property the moment it is open to view might seam a little weird; but only if one is in a culture bind. New technology - the printing press - led to the devising of copyright, and newer technology is going to eradicate it. As it is I have heard that the communist world disallows copyright on principle; and the communists are right, because in the long term intangible wealth is wealth released into the nöosphere, available 'to each according to his need', put there 'from each according to his ability' - controlling it is like trying to control air (remember Ron Hubbard's The Great Air Monopoly?).

The only way to keep private possession of it is to keep it secret. And that, in the philosophical sphere, is just what used to happen long ago. Societies such as the Pythagorean Society, and probably others we've never even heard of, were repositories of knowledge and ideas that were kept under tight security for centuries. That we know as much of Pythagorean doctrine as we do is chiefly thanks to a certain Philolaus, who so the story goes published an account of it because he needed money (it is believed to have become the source book of Plato's The Timaeus).

All this secrecy must have held back civilisation considerably. Material of this kind needs to be aired and circulated if there is to be progress - the surviving fragments of Pythagoreanism, for instance, led directly to the achievements of Kepler and Newton.

So what has all this got to do with science fiction? Well, if I need an excuse for this article maybe it's because I think science fiction is more nöospheric than other fiction. Crude though it often is, it's the mythology of our age, like the mythologies of tribes, their mental dimension - such as the fables of the Kalahari bushmen. a stone-age people in the last stages of being ground into eradication between the iron-making black barbarians from the north and the machine-gun wielding white barbarians entering from the south, yet whose myths contain such insight that one is dumbfounded to know where they came from.

Widen the view yet further. Psychologists have expressed wonderment at the way a human being can learn a language in the first few years of its life. Every sentence that is strung together is an act of creation, they say. In learning the secrets of its construction, every two-year-old is acting like a genius.

Identifying the reason for this 'amazement' can tell us a great deal about the early beginning of the 'nöosphere', if I may continue to use that jokey word. Language reflects the power of thought, the power to place facts in relation to one another, to test for validity, to arrive at new relations by experiment. The last is what we call 'creative thought'.

We can all talk, but even the better among us employ the power of thought but rarely. G B Shaw was not joking when he quipped: "Most people think once or twice in a lifetime. I have made myself an international reputation by thinking once a week."

We have thoughts. But to have a thought is not thinking: it is to thinking what an animal's ability to make noises is to human speech. Thinking means stringing thoughts together correctly and carefully, in such a manner as to elucidate some aspect of the world. And yet, we know that the power to think is part of the brain's hardware, just like the power or speech, in me as much as in Einstein. So why is it so little used? Because (a) it takes a certain kind of effort, and (b) we can get along without it.

What I am talking about hasn't much to do with IQ. What 'intelligence tests' measure are aptitudes. Thinking is a function. A slow-witted, gormless-seeming nerd of low IQ can be better at thinking than a high IQ smart-ass who cottons on to everything in a trice and passes all his exams with a smug smile on his face. (Do I sound hostile? It's because I answer to the first description.)

But consider for a moment. An organ evolves only if it confers some benefit on its owner. Why do we have these marvellous brains, when we seem incapable of using them?

The answer should be fairly obvious. The nöosphere uses them. In the first place, we think in bits and pieces here and there and society puts the thoughts together eventually. Secondly, if only one individual in a thousand, or a million, or a thousand million, stretches his mental capacity to the utmost and communicates the results to the other, there is survival value to the group in having the other one-thousand-million-minus-one unused genius-type brains.

But wait. Go back to the beginning. How did this brain evolve in the first place? In creatures that made no use of it? Hardly.

Imagine back to the emergence of the hominids. The brain would not have stabilised in its present form except by use. But remember that the evolving species was small in numbers, leaving little room for the large-scale mental redundancy of modern man. It had only rudimentary language. And it had no material for the automatic association of thoughts that passes for thinking among us: no accumulated knowledge, no backlog of ideas.

Conclusion: our primitive ancestors must have been our mental superiors. Typically they were geniuses. True, their mental capacity was smaller than our, their facility with thought unpracticed, their IQs low, even lower than mine. But they used what they had, at full stretch. Their efforts bootstrapped our neocortex into existence.

The above scenario helps make some questions more explicable. Such as the existence of religion, which is so persistent it must be in our genes somewhere. It was part of our evolution...

Skip back over the millions of years, for another look at the question of ownership of intangibles. Pythagoras is most famous for having investigated the properties of sound vibrations. Two and a half thousand years were to pass before this investigation was taken up again: by the inventor Nikola Tesla.

Tesla was a sort of science fictional superman, a true inheritor of our primeval ancestors, a man who did force the power of his thought to the utmost. Though he experimented with sound, his chief interest lay in the vaster range of electrical vibrations. He was the inventor of the polyphase system of AC current which is the basis of power transmission today, and which made possible the AC motor, previously thought impossible.

Tesla licenced his invention to an industrialist called Morgan for one million dollars plus a royalty on the horsepower developed. Tesla's biographer relates that the time came when Morgan's accountants told him he had given Tesla too much; he would have to ask him to negotiate another deal.

Under protest, Morgan did so. "And if I agree," Tesla said. "will you continue to develop the polyphase system?"

''I shall continue trying to develop the system whatever happens,'' Morgan told him.

"Giving my polyphase system to mankind means more to me than any amount of money,'' Tesla said. And he tore up his contract before Morgan's eyes.

He was tearing up, at the very least, eight million dollars. Alas, he was later to become secretive with his prodigious inventiveness, recording nothing on paper but committing everything to his perfect memory, not even telling his workmen the exact nature of the projects they worked upon. It's said he intended eventually to make more millions from the patents. When he died in 1943 he possibly took with him details of a laser device able to project energy in any amount in a beam a tiny fraction of millimetre in diameter (he lectured on the problem of generating coherent light in the 1890s), and a practicable system of broadcast power transmission that could be tapped anywhere on the earth's surface. At any rate he died with more knowledge of electricity than any man before him or probably since. But he made the same mistake the Pythagoreans made. He kept it as his private property, and now no one has it.

article copyright 1983-1999 by Barrington Bayley

Great many thanks to Mike Cross for the copy
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