Skip to main content

Black History Month: Select Books 30% Off

Harvard University Press - home
Shamans, Software, and Spleens

Shamans, Software, and Spleens

Law and the Construction of the Information Society

James Boyle

ISBN 9780674805231

Publication date: 10/30/1997

Who owns your genetic information? Might it be the doctors who, in the course of removing your spleen, decode a few cells and turn them into a patented product? In 1990 the Supreme Court of California said yes, marking another milestone on the information superhighway. This extraordinary case is one of the many that James Boyle takes up in Shamans, Software, and Spleens, a timely look at the infinitely tricky problems posed by the information society. Discussing topics ranging from blackmail and insider trading to artificial intelligence (with good-humored stops in microeconomics, intellectual property, and cultural studies along the way), Boyle has produced a work that can fairly be called the first social theory of the information age.

Now more than ever, information is power, and questions about who owns it, who controls it, and who gets to use it carry powerful implications. These are the questions Boyle explores in matters as diverse as autodialers and direct advertising, electronic bulletin boards and consumer databases, ethno-botany and indigenous pharmaceuticals, the right of publicity (why Johnny Carson owns the phrase "Here's Johnny!"), and the right to privacy (does J. D. Salinger "own" the letters he's sent?). Boyle finds that our ideas about intellectual property rights rest on the notion of the Romantic author--a notion that Boyle maintains is not only outmoded but actually counterproductive, restricting debate, slowing innovation, and widening the gap between rich and poor nations. What emerges from this lively discussion is a compelling argument for relaxing the initial protection of authors' works and expanding the concept of the fair use of information. For those with an interest in the legal, ethical, and economic ramifications of the dissemination of information--in short, for every member of the information society, willing or unwilling--this book makes a case that cannot be ignored.


  • James Boyle's unusually adventurous Shamans, Software and Spleens...examines the ideological and practical issues raised by the figure of the author in contemporary law and legal theory...Boyle's programme is two-fold. First, he offers a social theory of the information society as it depends on the figure of the author and the fiction of originality...Second, he offers a delicately phrased argument for leftward mitigation of intellectual property rights. On both fronts, Boyle succeeds admirably, demonstrating the logical contradictions of the author-centered regime and building a strong ethical and practical case for changes in the laws governing our information society...Boyle develops a terrifically engaging discussion of various problems in legal theory such as blackmail, insider trading, and the ownership of one's genetic code...It is the great merit of Boyle's work that he engages the debate on so many fronts, opening the conceptual breach of authorship neither to close it peremptorily nor to overcome it illusively, but to show how its very paradoxes provide the conceptual basis for the laws of property that govern our intellectual exchange.

    —Adam Bresnick, Times Literary Supplement


  • James Boyle is Professor of Law at American University.

Book Details

  • 288 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press