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You’re Hereby Forbidden to Read This E-Book Aloud: Lewis Lapham

The cover jacket of "Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership." The book is by Lewis Hyde. Source: Farrar, Straus and Giroux via Bloomberg

Aug. 28 (Bloomberg) -- The human genome contains just over three billion paired nucleotides and about 25,000 genes.

The ambitious plan to map all of them was undertaken by two different enterprises. One was funded by the U.S. government and private philanthropy; the other was commercial, largely supported by drug companies buying access to future patents and data.

Problems ensued, according to Lewis Hyde, author of “Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). He notes that during the 1990s, J. Craig Venter’s Celera Genomics Corp. said it would make its data freely available to the scientific community. In fact, there were always restrictions.

Hyde points out that property rights tend to expand over time. Congress passed a copyright extension law in 1998 to keep Mickey Mouse out of the public domain. And a recent electronic-book version of Lewis Carroll’s 1895 “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” forbade copying, printing, lending or giving it to someone else, plus warned against reading the tale aloud.

It’s worth remembering that the idea of intellectual property is newer than cars, lightbulbs and jazz, says Hyde, and we need to protect the public commons from ever further encroachment. I spoke with him on the following topics:

1. Creating Intellectual Property

2. 1710 Statute of Anne

3. The Cultural Commons

4. Corporeal vs. Incorporeal Goods

5. U.S. Piracy

To listen to the podcast, click here.

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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