Intellectual Property in Oral and Literate Cultures

Communication / April 23, 2015 / No Comments /
Why intellectual property rights exist in literate cultures and do not exist in oral culture.

This essay is an in-depth analysis of intellectual property law in an historical context. The specific history can be divided into two periods of cultural development, morality and literacy. The concept of intellectual property (individual ownership of creative work) was not present in oral cultures, but it is enshrined in law in literate cultures. This essay draws on the works of communications scholars like Walter Ong and Dan Lacy in order to establish these facts, and then proceeds to analyze them using one of Marshall McCluhan’s most famous insights, that the medium is the message. What this essay shows is that the medium of information preservation in oral cultures is fundamentally different than that of literate cultures. One medium supports the concept of intellectual property, and one does not. In other words, the medium determines the morals of the time. What is considered theft in literate culture is just sharing in oral culture. This examination of intellectual property in historical context is especially relevant today, with the current legal disputes over intellectual property in the music industry.
At this moment in 2001, intellectual property is a hot topic. The right to own an idea is being debated in fields as disparate as medicine and the music industry. In historical context, however, intellectual property is a relatively new concept. The first modern copyright law only emerged in 1710 and the People’s Republic of China did not have a copyright system until 1991. In contrast, the first known cave painting dates to 31,000 BC. Humans have been creating for thousands of years, but those expressions were only defined as personal property quite recently. The exact moment of this definition is still debated by experts: some say it came with the first copyright law, some say it began with the printing press in 1436, and others say that it emerged with the artist with a markedly individual personality in 6th century BC Greece (Ploman and Hamilton 5). Regardless of the specific point of division, copyright as we know it today was not present in ancient oral cultures (Bettig 11) and is not present in modern oral cultures like that of the Balinese (Ploman and Hamilton 4). Why the concept of intellectual property is evident in highly literate cultures and not in oral cultures can perhaps be best understood in terms of the social and political context of their respective historical periods. One explanation that emerges is that the chosen mediums of oral and literate cultures are qualitatively different and that each engenders a different set of social norms to guide intellectual production. What this paper seeks to do is to pursue this line of questioning by discerning what the medium was for each culture, analyzing the nature of each medium, and, finally, explaining how the medium determined whether or not the concept of intellectual property emerged.


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