Meera Nair

“Human Copyright” at Musée de la civilisation

In Posts on July 17, 2010 at 8:52 pm

Regrettably my holiday is over, but I have to make one more reference to my visit to Quebec. I wandered into the Musée de la Civilisation and discovered an exhibit called Human Copyright. This exhibition maps the journey of human thought, stating that, “The ability to think, unique to our species, is our Human Copyright.” [If any reader is in Quebec City, the exhibit runs until September 6, 2010.]

It is very well presented; I am hard pressed to pick my favourite part (so I won’t.) What is intriguing is that copyright in its conventional sense is not mentioned. Not even in the exhibit about the development of the printing press. The press is lauded for its ability to “foster the dissemination of ideas.” Diderot’s Encyclopedia is mentioned, but as part of the creative output of the Renaissance to which contemporary civilization is heavily indebted. Diderot himself was an advocate of what today is called intellectual property; yet this link was evidently not that interesting (what a relief) to the organizers of the collection.
Instead, the executive director elaborates on the connection between the title and the exhibit:

The ability to think and reflect—our copyright as humans—is a complex subject, but one that is tailor-made for a museum of civilization. It allows us to explore the distant past, to examine the present, and to try to define and comprehend the future of humanity. We have chosen to tackle this subject by crossing boundaries between disciplines and areas of expertise. In Human Copyright, visitors will enjoy an intellectually, artistically, and scientifically rewarding experience in which they become objects of self-study as they reflect on what it means to be human.”

This raises a more interesting connotation to the notion of copyright. The word evolved from right to make copies, which itself was predicated upon the right to print. Lyman Ray Patterson provides a comprehensive history of the shaping of modern copyright law through the activities of the Stationer’s Company in 16th century England. He documents a subtle change in the form by which printers stated their claims—earlier a printer would indicate that he had received a “lycense to prynte” a particular manuscript from an author, whereas later the word “copy” began replacing “print” (Patterson 1968, 52-54). In the language of the times, copy referred not only to the right to make duplicates of a manuscript, but also the manuscript itself.

So if copy can be a reference to the actual creation, is the exhibit’s language of human copyright as the “the ability to think and reflect,” saying that thinking is the expression of humanity itself and an inalienable right at that?

I’m still pondering the language – thoughts anyone?

Patterson, Lyman Ray. 1968. Copyright in Historical Perspective. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

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