Friday, October 22, 2010

Butler: an early advocate for copyrights?

All this discussion about Butler and his criticisms of Darwin makes me think of a few policies in today’s world. That is copyrights, patents and intellectual property rights. Butler, with his perfectly legitimate judgments of how Darwin plagiarised naturalists, was essentially advocating copyrights in his day. These policies are what protect people’s ideas from being taken by others for the generation of profits: Darwin probably had profits in mind when he decided to piece together The Origin of Species. It makes perfect sense when one compares books during the 1800’s with music today. It doesn’t matter what material, or medium, is used to represent an idea when it can be delivered to the masses and sold on the market. Everyone dreams of being a rockstar today, just like everyone dreamt of writing a best seller when the book was popular. Darwin was simply acting on capitalist instinct when he decided to create a legendary book.

There are various ‘anti-Butlers’ today that believe copyrights limit the ability of our society to enjoy and improve on ideas. Lawrence Lessig is one of these believers. He advocates ‘creative commons’ and ‘copyleft’ as an alternative. The argument is that copyright policies go too far by privatizing knowledge. The world is increasingly influenced by capitalism and it is impossible not to see the similarity in owning an idea and owning an item. Owning anything means it is property; something of value that can be exchanged for money. To bring this back to Darwin, perhaps it was not right of him to plagiarise others; however, without the freedom to use the theories in the way that he did, we may never have received as influential a book as Origin.

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