Condorcet, the rebel still

Posted by on Mar 25, 2014 in books, library | No Comments

Nicolas de Condorcet

If I could go back in time to to tell somebody something about the future of books and reading, I would travel to France in 1776 to have a chat with Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet.

Condorcet was a mathematician and philosopher who was passionate about public education and making and keeping knowledge open and circulating. As part of this perspective, Condorcet argued that the concept of authorship, particularly the notion that an author has exclusive ownership of and exclusive rights to their work, is unjust and unprincipled. Indeed, he called the concept of authorship retrograde and a product of an absolutist monarchy He was a strong voice arguing against the conceptualization of books (and the ideas they contain) as property. In 1776 Condorcet published a text called Fragments sur la Liberté de la Presse (the English translation of the title is: Fragments on the Freedom of the Press) which explains his views in detail.

I think it would be interesting to travel back 238 years, to the moment right after the publication of Fragments, to tell Condorcet that issues surround the granting of exclusive authors rights, and the questions such a practice raises with regard to the public interest and the commons, remain not just salient, but pressing. We continue to wrestle with theses same ideas despite centuries of discussion and impressive technological changes. I imagine that Condorcet would be saddened by many legal and policy interventions that have been made to better secure books and ideas as property. I think he would rail against tools like DRM as examples of an absolutist government viciously constraining the liberty of the people. At the same time, I could imagine him finding hope and, possibly, resistance in Open Access projects and the conceptualization of the internet as a venue for open and free exchange. Ultimately, I think it would be interesting to tell Condorcet that his radical-for-1776 views on authorship remain extremely radical to this day. Indeed, la plus ça change la plus c’est la même chose

Leave a Reply