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James Boyle. The Public Domain James Boyle.
The public domain: Enclosing the commons of the mind.
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008.
cloth, 315 p., ISBN 978 0 30013 740 8, $US28.50.
Yale University Press:



In 1993, I was fortunate to attend a meeting of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) at the Harvard Law School, aptly entitled the WIPO Worldwide Symposium on the Impact of Digital Technology on Copyright and Neighboring Rights. The meeting occurred in the early Spring (31 March 31 to 2 April) but I found the event to be one of the most chilling and frightening events in my life. Speaker after speaker called for the control of this newly available tool called the Internet, damning it as the biggest “threat” to publishers and the music industry since the invention of the photocopier. Speaker after speaker demanded new ways to counter the openness of the Internet, new rules and regulations to restrict this digital commons, new rulings to nearly evaporate the public domain. A little over a decade and a half, this book demonstrates the successes and failures of many of those who attended that meeting, many of those that institgated efforts to diminish the public domain, the digital commons.

Boyle certainly makes it clear that the commons and the public domain are not one and the same (see p. 39 for example). In fact, this book is remarkable in many ways, not the least in conflating these. As someone teaching a course annually on information policy, I welcome this clarity and the sheer enthusiasm and humor of this simply delightful book. Thank goodness for Professor Boyle — and his ten–year–old in the role of vital editorial assistant:

“The central issues of intellectual property are not technical, abstruse, or arcane. To be sure, the rules of intellectual property law can be as complex as a tax code (although they should not be). But at the heart of intellectual property law are a set of ideas that a ten–year–old can understand perfectly well. (When writing this book, I checked this on a ten–year–old I then happened to have around the house.)” (p. xiii)

I must admit that I am a fan of James Boyle and his perspective on intellectual property. I have bought many copies of Bound by law? Tales from the public domain (see and given all of them away to my students. Hence, this book synthesizes much of Boyle’s earlier work in quite a fascinating and neat package (my students will find much of this work as required reading this semester).

There is much in this book to rave about, even shout from the rooftops (and frankly we need to). I personally appreciated Boyle’s dissection of Thomas Jefferson’s famous and oft–misquoted letter of 13 August 1813 to Isaac McPherson (a portion of which appears as the frontispiece to this book). Boyle dedicates the second chapter to Jefferson’s letter (and much else) and in so doing so invents the “Jefferson Warning”:

“So Jefferson gives us a classic set of cautions, cautions that we should be required to repeat, as police officers repeat the Miranda Warning to a suspect. In this case, they should be repeated before we rush off into the world of intellectual property policy rather than before we talk to the police without our lawyers present.” (p. 21)

Anyone with even the slightest interest in intellectual property, government policy, and the Internet should read this book. Highly, highly recommended! — Edward J. Valauskas. End of article

Copyright © 2009, First Monday.

Book review of James Boyle’s The public domain: Enclosing the commons of the mind
by Edward J. Valauskas.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 1 - 5 January 2009

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