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The following is the text of a talk given at the British Academy on the 24th of November 2003. The occasion was an Arts and Humanities Research Board 'Research Strategy Seminar' entitled 'Intellectual Property Rights in the Arts and Humanities'. I was asked to talk for twenty minutes on 'The broader issues involved in Intellectual Property', and was joined on the panel for the day by John Howkins (author of 'The Creative Economy: How People Make Money from Ideas') and Hector McQueen (Professor of Intellectual Property law in Edinburgh University)].

To start us off today, I am going to do an anthropological thing. Social anthropologists are used to thinking in detail about social practices which are unfamiliar, in order to shed new light on things which, because of their familiarity, come to seem natural. So I am going to outline something that may sound a million miles from our concerns here today. That is, something about creativity and ownership in Papua New Guinea. But I do so because, in other research much closer to home, that is, with artists and scientists engaged in experimental collaborations, there are intriguing parallels.

Many developments in both academia, and what have been called the creative industries have been noted as the background to today's discussions. I hardly need mention the emergence of digital information and communication technologies and how they provide possibilities for new combinations of knowledge, and indeed for new working practices and collaborations. But how these changes effect, or are effected by, ownership regimes, is a real issue.

I am going to talk about creativity itself in relation to ownership. My presentation has the theme of persons and their boundaries running through it. What I am looking to do is outline how a particular conception of the person, and of where their boundaries lie, figures in Intellectual Property (IP). Understanding something about persons and their boundaries also requires that we think about what people produce, and how that is differentiated from them.

Long ago John Locke pointed out that natural reason demands that the person, as possessor of him or her self, is also the rightful possessor of anything from the commons that they modify through their labour. There is a natural connection between the producer and the things they produce (that is, objects which demonstrate labour and intent). There is a ready made location for creativity here – the kind of person which we call a possessive individual. A person, through mixing their labour with nature, or commonly owned resources, makes something their own. Intellectual Property is property in exactly this way. Something is appropriated from a common pool of ideas, and transformed though the labour of the mind. This transformation connects the creator to their creation through the linkage of (mental) labour.

But this formula is a culturally and historically specific construction. I think it presents us with a problem. These notions of mental creativity, the person, and how they come to own things, make problematic the kind of enterprise that interdisciplinary collaboration is.

OK, so now I am going to outline two rather different instances of what we might usefully think of as a 'dispersed creativity'. The first is within a recent series of initiatives in this country that bring together artists and scientists. The second is located in a place that, on the surface, appears distant from innovative interdisciplinary initiatives in UK universities. However, I want to show that there are illuminating outcomes if we juxtapose two apparently very different modes of collaborative endeavour. If nothing else, it allows us to think in an unusual way about some of the broader issues involved in the ownership of Intellectual Property.

In both places, there is collaboration between people, which has creative, or potentially creative, outcomes. So creative collaboration is a point of similarity. Now in general we might make the banal observation that there is only a reason to collaborate if the parties to the collaboration are differentiated in what they might bring to the endeavour. Hence my use of the term 'dispersed creativity', which is intended to reflect not just multiple parties, but the fact that creativity itself lies in the relationships between differentiated elements in these instances. The particularity of the outcome (its novelty, value, unique appearance or whatever) is a function of a kind of initial dispersal of agency and knowledge. If collaboration based upon differentiation between participants is something we might see as happening in both PNG and the west, then where does the difference lie?

I believe that the difference lies in how the registers for the effect of collaborative work connect people to one another, and to what they produce. That is, ownership reflects assumptions about persons, and creativity which are themselves differently structured. Talking of registers puts us, in the UK case, into the realm of Intellectual Property in two senses. There is a strong sense, in that reward for creative work is made available through Intellectual Property. But IP also provides the grammar for our understanding of recognition and reward, whether or not there is an IP claim specifically on offer. Thus there is a weak sense in which IP is relevant. Assumptions about creativity, and about persons themselves, structure the mode in which people come to identify with the projects they are involved in. Identity, belonging, ownership, and possession are central here.

OK, so two very different examples to illustrate issues of ownership, identification and belonging. First, art-science.

The outcomes of an experimental collaboration between artists and scientists were put on display in the contemporary art gallery of the University of Cambridge last November. In the midst of a successful show of work, there were disagreements between the collaborators. These disagreements arose because of credit, or the lack of it.

Some technological collaborators were angry that their contribution to an image used in publicity for the exhibition, and in one of the works on display, had not been credited sufficiently. The gallery curator had not, for various reasons, managed to indicate the input of specific scientists and technologists.

At another moment, one of the facilitators of the scheme, the person who made connections between artist's interests and scientists in Cambridge, also complained. His complaint was directed against an artist, who, in their explanation of the work on display, told a tale of a wonderful co-incidence. This person had apparently met miraculously with scientists in Cambridge who were working on exactly the kinds of innovation in technology that she required to further her artistic practice. The facilitator was angered because his role in the project was to find appropriate collaborators and facilitate conversations between them and the artists. This turned out to be anything but straightforward. (It was a lot of work.) The magnitude of his work was obscured by the artist's narrative, which was one of good fortune, and even of skilled discovery, as part of an artistic, creative synchronicity.

Why should one be interested in an all too familiar, and almost petty you may say, series of disagreements? Well one observation that one could make on the basis of these examples is that collaborative work, just like any other, must have an arena, or context, in which its products makes sense. It seemed that an art gallery, with its conventional focus on the artist and their creative genius, was not particularly appropriate for the display of an interdisciplinary and collaborative outcome.

In turn, I know that many practitioners of 'sci-art' feel they want their work to be judged as art, and not stigmatised or ghettoised as an odd hybrid (sci-art) that audiences do not know how to respond to.

An art gallery is the obvious place for a standard of aesthetic judgement to be applied. But if the objects are indeed collaborations between artists and scientists, then what value does the scientist realise from the moment of revelation in an art gallery? In fact of course, the scientist has other arenas in which to present her work. Scholarly journals, conferences papers and so forth. The same question, this time in reverse, could be asked here. What value can an artist realise in these arenas?

OK, so now my corresponding example, and a shift in context. Brace yourselves!

When young men reach adolescence in the villages on the Northern coast of Papua New Guinea, they are taken by a mother's brother, and secluded in a forest clearing or a men's house, for up to six weeks. Mother's brothers are one of the most important players in any person's life on the North Coast of Papua New Guinea. A mother's brother's good will, and work, is necessary for the successful growth of a person. This work is recognised in that the MB demands payment each time a child makes a step in the direction of emerging as an adult, social being. Before a child can wear any clothing, their father must find an eel, and wrapping it around the child's waist, pass the baby to a MB, who removes and consumes the eel. Before a child may eat pork they must have a pig killed for their MB.

Now when a male child is initiated, it is his MB's who perform the ritual. Each man in the position of MB (there are bound to be lots of them because of the way that kinship is reckoned there) will have a different kind of input. So a man who is a successful hunter may bring his spirits to the initiation, and introduce them into the body of the initiate. He will teach the child the secret names of the spirits, and how to utilise this knowledge of them. Another MB may bring skills in love magic, or another in tending pigs. The things used to grow a boy into a man during his seclusion define his future abilities and tendencies. They make him the man he is.

The MB is thus a powerful, and sometimes fearful, character. Should he be displeased with you, or indeed your kin, he may equally easily cause the child in their future life to be unproductive, or even venal.

Now, as I mentioned, there are particular moments when a MB may make claims upon a man during his life. If a boy turns out to be a fine hunter, it is very likely he will himself feel an obligation to make presentations of wild game to his MB in a public display. This is acknowledging the value of his skill through recognition of its source.

When a boy marries, it is not unusual for a MB to arrive and make demands on his nephew. He may say at this point that it is his work apparent in the marriage, Without his power for love magic, the boy would never have attracted a bride.

Now this series of examples are anything but extraordinary for the region I am referring to. The kinsmen of a girl, on her marriage, receive wealth items and pigs that are recompense for their loss of her body in marriage. And the distribution of such payments is carefully managed. People's contributions of nurture, of knowledge, of wealth to decorate her, of initiation, and so on, bring specific kinds of return on her marriage.

It would be reasonable to say that people do not own themselves in this context. Bridewealth, and payments to Mothers brothers, demonstrate that anything one could call the self – ones bodily substance, ones ideas and skills – have come from elsewhere. In the moment of effect, in the moment a man appears after initiation, or the moment a girl appears as a marriageable woman, or a man returns from a hunting trip laden with game, claims are made which ask for the specific recognition of relationships that have made that person what they are.

Distributed responsibility for growing a child then means that one person's effect end up in the actions of another person. Note that there is not just one MB here. There are many, each with their own distinctive, different input. Thus there are different moments that claims appear, depending on the skill or ability being demonstrated. It is this appearance that is the moment for a claim.

Unlike the art gallery example, in fact, it is necessary for the work to register in changes in another person before any claim can be made. One person's agency is apparent in the actions of another. There is a particularity to claims, based upon the recognition of particular inputs to what we might call the collaborative effort of growing a person from birth into a socially effective adult person.

It is important to note that the MB has a specific recipient for his efforts. Likewise, collaborative and interdisciplinary initiatives in the UK are not the open ended diffusion or dissemination of knowledge. These too are places where one person's input is focussed specifically on another person. In fact, if successful, they are one person's creativity working inside another person. When we think of collaboration then the usual description -- of sharing knowledge -- is just inadequate to describe the process whereby one person absorbs and uses another's input.

The element missing from what I said about sci-art collaborations is the value we place upon ownership and possession, as mediating identity. Identification with what one produces is metaphorical, if not actual legal, ownership. Why do I spend my Sunday writing a talk? What drives inventors, scientists etc., if it is not a feeling of belonging – that their work belongs to them as an object outcome, something which is attached to them through identification with its source. Our attachments are crucial to our identity. Attachment to tasks is a form of ownership. It is this kind of attachment which drives us we might say. This is the positive side of ownership, and it is very productive.

The dispersal of creativity in PNG is also a dispersal of identity, because the register of effect is within other persons. It is what they do that tells one about ones own capacities. Collaboration then is essential, and relations are not built as external to individuals, but are already present within them. For us, instead, relating it is an option, and a conscious effort, because of our insistence that relationships are things that have to be made, and exist as external elements of persons. Absorbing, using, and producing are seen as a very individual activity. In fact, our models of creativity and its workings locate the capacity not in relationships between people, but in individual mental work.

For us then the intellect is seen as the source and engine of creative endeavour. And intellect, the individual's subjective engagement with the world beyond them, is bounded. It is within the person. In turn, its effects appear beyond the person – they are visible in the material world, the world of objects. But creativity itself is always within the minds of persons. It is thus individual in itself. Its effects register in the object world, the material world, and not in other persons.

Now you may disagree. There are many examples of one person's work registering in another. But think of how this works. People's creations have to exist in a material form to be circulated. Once they are in this form, they may be owned, and owned as IP, if we are talking of knowledge. This means that any incorporation of another's work is always the incorporation of existing and externalised elements. It is in the process of taking these into the mind, and transforming them there, that creativity occurs. The credit for creativity itself, for the work of making new value from existing material, is located in the individual. It was their work to make anew the existing work of another.

So we have a mode of creativity, tied to a regime of ownership, here. Creativity occurs within the individual mind. Its effects are a result of the will, of agentive appropriations from, and subsequent interventions in, the world that exists beyond the person. It is as if the person, through their creative work, remakes, or re-fashions, their relationship to others, and the world, through the mediation of the objects they create. Hence the link with identity.

Claims, such as those apparent in the gallery appear as call to remake a relation that is already there. Hence the facilitator's indignation if his efforts are elided. A dispersed creativity, dependent upon differentiated actors working together, comes to look like the working of an individual, and this is because the idioms we have for authorship, ownership, and credit for creativity, insist on seeing relations as external to any single entity.

Remember Locke. A person is the rightful possessor of anything from the commons that they modify through their labour. There is a natural connection between the producer and the things they produce (that is, objects which demonstrate labour and intent). In PNG, this kind of attachment is very weak. They are people who are always deferring. Identity is not in objects attached to the producer, but is seen and known in how others act and respond to one. Dispersal of agency and creativity results.

Now, the thing about a dispersed creativity is that its effects can only show in particular people. This is true both in PNG, and here. The vital difference is in the way effects are registered, and how this leads to reward, recognition and claims.

In one case, that of creative work in the UK, the register is in the material, object world and thus external to the person. Property logics make a relation between subject (producer) and object. Property looks like a relationship between people and things, even though it is in fact a relation between persons. In PNG, work is apparent in others bodies and capacities. When these are demonstrated, claims are admissible.

My argument then has been that in the particular conception of creativity we operate with in the West, one based upon the individual mind as the location of creative effort, we have difficulties registering exactly the kind of dispersed creativity that collaborative endeavour and Interdisciplinary work, exhibit. New possibilities for combinations of images and previous work afforded by technical developments pose the same issues. These are arenas in which creativity lies in the relationships between persons, and between knowledge practices. When these elements are encompassed by any a single mind, which they must be for creative work to occur, it looks as if they have been appropriated. This impression is made real by the workings of Intellectual Property, which operates to make objects out of ideas, and then attach them to individual (or communal) producers. The (rather common) feeling that people have of not being recognised for their input to other peoples' productions is a result of an emphasis on the individual, and a consequent underplaying of collaboration. Complaints about the lack of credit are calls to remake a relationship between people that ought to be recognised as already existing. A particular construction of the person, one I have highlighted against a different construction from PNG, mitigates against the possibility of such recognition.