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Copyright and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Matthew B. Crawford’s new book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,” gives IP lawyers quite a lot to think about.  (An excerpt appeared recently in the New York Times magazine, and the book as a whole originated as an essay at The New Atlantis.)  Crawford is offering a modern take on an old idea:  Working with your hands in a non-routinized, non-mechanical way — making things — is an ethical statement.  It’s democratizing.  It’s ennobling.  It’s intellectually demanding, even enlightening.

Crawford may oversell his point just a bit, but there is something to what he says (and what Ruskin and Pirsig, among others, said before him).  What’s the IP angle?

The “piracy” problem, among other problems on the copyright scene today, represents (among many other things) the inability of music lovers and consumers to see or hear the craft of the artists represented in the recordings (films, computer programs) being uploaded and downloaded.  The commodification of popular music over the last 100 years — ever since Sousa complained that musical recordings would eviscerate traditions of family singing — is, in this sense, nothing more than the complete separation of the musical audience from the craftworkers who make the music.  The closer the connection, however, the tighter the ethical bond that supports and justifies the obligation to pay — money, respect, or both — the creator.  As that connection gets more and more attentuated, that ethical bond frays – and snaps, as it now has.

That is not to say that there isn’t craft in the production of contemporary music; far from it (this is where Crawford falls short — the skilled labor, craft, that supports certain kinds of “knowledge work”).  Rob Merges has been writing recently about the structural role of copyright law in giving priority of economic place to creative professionals, whose output is and should be valued more highly by society, at the margins, than the output of creative amateurs.  Merges and Crawford are using the same conceptual vocabulary, even if they aren’t speaking the same language, and proponents of “user-generated creativity (or “content”)” often mine the same vein, even if they see the output differently.  “Creative professional” may be a misleading category; in some fields, it substitutes an (absent) ethics of the organization for Crawford’s ethics of skilled labor.  It’s the skill, or the craft, that copyright might fairly favor.  Some people look at “amateur” creativity, especially in online “remixing” contexts, and see emerging discipline; some people see that discipline only in established practices supported by traditional training.  To the latter, “remixing” is little more than throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.

Crawford’s work has hit a nerve, from what I can tell, because it re-captures something that just won’t go away (motorcycle maintenance, perhaps, but I think that there is more), no matter how much economic modelers want to speak only of incentive, reward, and efficiency.  Going forward, if “remixing” is to earn a safe foothold in the copyright system, one of the challenges for its proponents is developing and harnessing an as-yet-undeveloped vocabulary of craft production for what is currently celebrated in some quarters for its “undisciplined” (in several senses of that word) appeal.

6 thoughts on “Copyright and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

  1. Funny, when Disney remixes Snow White (again and again and again) it is accompanied by the full corpulent weight of existing copyright law. When a genius with a turntable does it, it suddenly becomes “spaghetti on the wall”? Here’s my spaghetti: “First thing, first thing, first thing…let’s k-k-k-kill all the lawyers “.

  2. The piece reminded me a bit of Nissenbaum & Introna on the virtues of P2P. . . especially the common reliance on MacIntyre and internal goods of a practice.

    Alain de Botton offers an interesting counterpoint, insisting that for most, labor is arduous, and there’s little hope of finding meaning in it:

    But I do recall some fascinating reflections by Richard Sennett on the rewards of having a craft. I think he quoted Tolstoy’s rapturous passages on Levin’s honest work of scything wheat.

    Finally, I’ve been wanting to connect Shepherd’s piece to Martin Seligman’s chapter on “Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy” in his book Authentic Happiness. This may spur me to do that.

  3. This echoes some of the comments made be T.S. Monk in October 2008 at a Future of Music panel on sampling (which we have discussed at within the context of the sampling one-man band Girl Talk). We believe Monk went a bit too far in equating the work that goes into creativity with a natural right theory of copyright. Still, there is something to be said for an audience not seeing creative people work PLUS the absence of a physical manifestation of that work (i.e. a disc) leading to a devaluation of the work itself.

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