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Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet

A. “Clean Arrangements”: The Dream of Property Rights

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Much of the appeal of Ted Nelson’s attachment to intellectual property was that it is embedded in a moral vision, not just a dry business model or an economic theory. Nelson, in Computer Lib, was clearly not just cooking up a justification for something that would help him get rich. Nelson saw intellectual property protection as of a piece with his idea of freedom. He imagined the computer user as an autonomous, free individual who communicates without the mediation of publishers, libraries, or educational institutions. Digitally enabled intellectual property protection, he believed, would empower that kind of individualism.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Someone like Richard Stallman might argue that such proprietary computing introduces constraints, barriers, and lawyerly and managerial meddling. Nelson’s response is this: “I’ve heard . . . arguments, like ‘Copyright means getting the lawyers involved.’ This has it approximately backwards. The law is ALWAYS involved; it is CLEAN ARRANGEMENTS of law that keep the lawyers away. . . . If the rights are clear and exact, they are less likely to get stepped on, and it takes less to straighten matters out if they are. Believe it or not, lawyers LIKE clean arrangements. ‘Hard cases make bad law,’ goes the saying.”[6] This is precisely where Nelson combines computers with Lockean liberalism; the machines, with their enormous capacity for fine calculation, will provide the “clean arrangements” that enable friction-free property relations. With Xanadu, according to Nelson, each individual contribution to the system would be perfectly preserved and perfectly rewarded; the computer system itself is supposed to prevent the possibility of unattributed theft of ideas because each “quotation” is preserved by an unalterable link that, not only allows readers to instantly call up intellectual sources, but also ensures direct payment for each use.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Nelson’s hope that “clean arrangements” (that is, precisely defined property boundaries) provide the key to freedom has deep roots in American tradition, not to mention a long intellectual pedigree. The triumvirate rights of “life, liberty, and property,” made famous by John Locke and Adam Smith tripped easily off the lips of the Founding Fathers, appeared in various forms in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.[7] The phrase, it should be emphasized, puts property rights on par with the prohibition against murder (the right to life) and the claim to freedom itself (liberty). Like these other primordial rights, moreover, property was said to be natural, inherent, something you had by virtue of being born. Early U.S. leadership thereby wrote the right to property into the soul of American society, long before the polity seriously considered, say, universal suffrage.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Protecting that right to property, making sure that what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is mine, is not just a philosophical position. By most reckonings it is fundamental to the sense of justice in a capitalist world. It is a powerful bit of sociocultural sense making that helps it seem natural and right for people to pursue the ownership of things, even if this results in some people owning a lot more than others. And it feeds into our sense of what law and justice is supposed to be in the first place. Fair, clear rules―the rule of law, not of men, as the saying goes―are obtained by maintaining clear boundaries, boundaries between property, between individuals. Find the clear lines, make sure no one is stepping over them and is yet free to do what they want within in their own property boundaries, and you have justice. As Ayn Rand, America’s twentieth-century pop philosopher of property rights, had her fictional hero John Galt say, “Just as man can’t exist without his body, so no rights can exist without the right to translate one’s rights into reality, to think, to work and keep the results, which means: the right of property.”[8] Property, in her view, is not just some legal technicality. The right “to think, to work,” is of a piece with the right to “keep the results.”

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This view does not just appeal to the already rich. By standard measures, Nelson’s career has been a checkered one on the margins of the same commercial and educational computing communities that have been so deeply influenced by his ideas. With that in mind, there’s something poignant about his vision; it’s the vision of an outsider, never entirely secure or well-rewarded by institutions, who has never been treated all that “fairly,” who imagines a utopia in which those unfair institutions are supplanted altogether by communities of free individuals working at computer consoles. It’s a utopia where there are no arbitrary powers like a corporate monopoly or arbitrarily powerful authorities with careers built on glad-handing or hot air; a utopia where no smug, tenured journal editors can prevent one’s article from reaching publication, and no short-sighted corporate executive can arbitrarily deep-six a beloved project on behalf of cost cutting. Nor can any of these people claim an underling’s idea as their own. Nelson is proposing to make real a very American ideal: a vision of a mathematically perfect property system, of crystalline rules that finally make manifest “the rule of law, not of men”―enabled, in this case, by computer technology.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 As the internet triumphantly spread the habits of Nelson’s hypertext into American life in the mid-1990s, however, things would turn out to be anything but crystalline in the realm of property.

  • [6] Nelson, Ted_Report2.html.
  • [7] Locke’s phrase in the Second Treatise was “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. Crawford Brough Macpherson [Hackett Publishing, 1980], 9.)
  • [8] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (Dutton Adult, 2005), 106.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/neteffect/chapter-6/a-clean-arrangements/