When Jennie Erdal wrote her wonderful book about being a ghost writer she was widely condemned. While her role had been in the public domain, it was somehow ‘not done’ to draw such public attention to the deceit. I remember being disappointed as a child when I discovered that Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys were all ghost-written by the same syndicate. In art, it is widely known that many an old Master consists of some ‘Master’ and rather a lot of apprentices executing the draperies or scenery.
Modern-day Masters like Bridget Riley use assistants to ‘execute’ their visions, such that the only thing they are likely to have painted is their signature at the bottom of the canvas. Perhaps like buildings, which are generally attributed to their architects, this way of assigning authorship is correct. But somehow it matters. If we discovered Shakespeare’s plays were indeed written by someone else, it would change things. Why?
William Ayot was the poet in residence at the Ashridge Leadership Conference a few years back, when we invited Trevor Bayliss to talk to us about being an inventor. After hearing Bayliss’ woes about intellectual property rights, Ayot wrote a poem about ideas and butterfly nets, posing a question about whether ideas are ever really ‘ours,’ and whether we are simply lucky enough to have the right net when the right butterfly flutters by. This whimsical notion intrigues me. Who ‘owns’ ideas, and what does creation and authorship really mean?
I remember learning that in English Property Law the Crown owns all land, meaning that our ‘real estate’ is technically on loan. Maybe the furore over TRIPS might be eased if we were able to adopt this more transient notion, that ideas are on loan to us and we are custodians of them, until such time as they must move on. This is embodied in Patent legislation but is not reflected in the character of the IP debate. If no man is an island, should we not replace ‘ownership’ with ‘stewardship,’ and require Patent-holders to account for their nurturing, as well as to plan for effective transfer once their ‘idea’ matures?