Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, June 1, 2009

about that moose

I just finished reading David Post’s quirky book In Search of Jefferson’s Moose: Notes on the State of Cyberspace, and I’m not quite sure what to say about it. At the end of the book Post confesses that his editor wanted him to clarify whether he was writing a book about Thomas Jefferson or about the Internet, and agrees that he never was clear about that himself. For the reader of the book this really is a problem.

Post’s book, as best I understand it, has two governing ideas. The first is that, just as Thomas Jefferson wrote his Notes on the State of Virginia in order to describe a complex, emerging, not-yet-perfectly-defined environment to people who didn't have a clear idea what it was all about, so Post wants to write a description of the complex, emerging, not-yet-perfectly-defined environment of the Internet. The tasks are remarkably similar, Post wants to say.

His second governing idea is that Jefferson was an incisive and prescient thinker about matters of intellectual property, and therefore is worth heeding as we imagine what the Internet could and should be. (Post distinguishes the wide-open unregulated “Jeffersonian” model of the Internet, which tends to dominate legal thinking about these matters in the United States, from the more controlled, governed “Hamiltonian” model, which is much stronger in, for example, France.) This is absolutely right, which is why Jefferson gets quoted extensively by almost every legal scholar writing about the Internet.

But this second governing idea really doesn't have much to do with the first one except that Jefferson is involved. So as I read In Search of Jefferson’s Moose I enjoyed the individual parts of it very much, but couldn't find a unifying argument at all.

If you’re interested in a seriously Jeffersonian account of the Internet’s legal situation, I would recommend the slightly less sprightly but far more forcefully coherent book by James Boyle, The Public Domain. You can, if you choose, download a PDF of Boyle’s book here.


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