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  • Making and Unmaking Intellectual Property: Creative Production in Legal and Cultural Perspective
  • Alex Sayf Cummings (bio)
Making and Unmaking Intellectual Property: Creative Production in Legal and Cultural Perspective. Edited by Mario Biagioli, Peter Jaszi, and Martha Woodmansee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Pp. vi+466. $40.

Jack Donaghy, the fictional GE executive on the sitcom 30 Rock, lauded his boss Don Geiss for inventing many things: the idea of raising one finger to silence someone, for instance, and the “abrupt conversational segue.” Though absurd, these so-called inventions are not unlike the simple-seeming ideas and practices that businesses have been able to patent in recent years, like Amazon’s One-Click process for online shopping. Since the 1990s, scholars have begun to critique the expanding powers of intellectual property, and works attacking the alleged excesses of copyright are not hard to find. Readers who seek comprehensive studies of copyright, patent, and other rights, however, have had look to the work of legal scholars such as Paul Goldstein and Jane Ginsburg, who treat the evolution of the law as more or less logical and natural. The new edited collection Making and Un-making Intellectual Property aims to fill this gap by offering a kaleidoscopic view of property over the course of centuries, from practices of attribution and invention among female printmakers in early modern Italy to the inner workings of the U.S. Patent Office.

Like many collections, Making and Unmaking runs the risk of ranging too far and wide in its heterogeneous mix of topics. However, anyone teaching a course on a broad theme like intellectual property or the concept of authorship will find much to assign here, as Making and Unmaking is the rare book that approaches different species of property from a variety of perspectives: economics and ideology, jurisprudence and material culture, politics and production. It is not just a book about copyright or patent. Rather, it provides a way to engage students in issues of ownership and creativity across a number of national and historical contexts. Contributors include many of the most noted scholars on property rights, such as Rosemary J. Coombe and Peter Jaszi, along with emerging figures like William Rankin, whose essay on the ways Americans have visually depicted patents is one of the book’s most provocative pieces. Legal scholars Dotan Oliar and Christopher J. Sprigman explore how stand-up comedians regulate originality and prohibit “joke stealing” through a system of nonstatutory social norms. These contributions excel by making abstractions like copyright and invention tangible. Schematics from patent applications, for instance, reveal the visual and intellectual culture of nineteenth-century America, while extensive interviews depict the social settings in which comedians create and police their own intellectual property, through group censure and individual confrontation.

The volume succeeds most when its contributors avoid generalizing [End Page 922] about “grand narratives” of modernism or Romanticism and instead ground their analysis of property in the world of real people grappling with the value of their immaterial creations. One such arena is the classroom, where the entertainment industry has campaigned to inculcate school-children with respect for “creative ownership.” The tone of such appeals is invariably corny, and their legal claims are questionable at times. Ideological indoctrination over copyright, it seems, has not evolved much since “don’t copy that floppy” in the 1980s.

The editors gently chide the open-source and free-software movements for operating within conventional logics of authorship and ownership, even as they attempt to supplant or critique them. Such a criticism is sound, but neither can Making and Unmaking escape the dominant frames entirely. The volume is held together by “intellectual property,” a relatively novel concept that encompasses a diverse set of rights and privileges. Its use as a blanket term only became common in the mid-twentieth century, and it must be imported into the past. Whether it makes sense to talk about informal social norms among comedians and the inscribing practices of early modern printmakers under the same rubric is a question left mostly unexamined in this volume; the inclusion of a concluding essay might have helped bring its divergent themes together in some kind of unified...


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