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.