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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction/law

Shamans, Software, and Spleens

James Boyle

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To purchase Shamans, Software, and Spleens

Title: Shamans, Software, and Spleens
Author: James Boyle
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1996
Length: 270 pages
Availability: Shamans, Software, and Spleens - US
Shamans, Software, and Spleens - UK
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  • Law and the Construction of the Information Society

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Our Assessment:

A- : Important questions, interestingly addressed

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Harvard J. of Law & Tech. . Winter/1997 Elizabeth L. Mitchell
The NY Times Book Rev. B- 22/9/1996 Peter Huber

  From the Reviews:
  • "On the strength of four slim case studies, Mr. Boyle attempts to articulate a new 'social theory of the information society.' He demonstrates only that no one has yet come close." - Peter Huber, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The clash of law, governing our society, and the information age raises many an interesting issue. Laws like to be immutable -- or people like to keep them as such (think Ten Commandments) -- but changing times require new rules and regulations. Our fast changing times constantly strain at laws and regulations that are both archaic and inappropriate. It is the difficulties that this poses that Boyle addresses in his book.
       He discusses four issues, to show the problems we are faced with: copyright, blackmail, insider trading, and what he calls spleens -- "ownership" of genetic information. Copyright is the most familiar problem in this day and age when any information can be reproduced and disseminated at minimal cost on the Internet, but the others are significant issues as well.
       Boyle's challenges to current law and conventional thinking are interesting. He questions why blackmail and insider trading are illegal (and considered morally reprehensible). And he wonders about our notions of "authorship", making copyright a property right, while in the spleen example doctors are able to get property rights in discoveries based entirely on cells from a patient -- surely as proprietary thing as there is.
       Boyle's arguments are thought-provoking and important: the ramifications of these issues go far indeed. He understands the need to balance between incentives -- for new discoveries and artistic creations -- and efficiency (for society at large). He argues, for example, that it is untenable that drug companies can profit from pharmaceuticals based on material gathered in the rainforests without adequately reimbursing the keepers of the forest and those traditions (the shamans of the title).
       Unfortunately his proposals are also somewhat arbitrary -- copyright protection to last only for twenty years, a tax on drugs based on the "ethnobotanists' pharmacopeia". Certainly, however they are worth discussing. Similarly the suggestion of a different re-regulation of software (not as copyrightable, but protecting it in a different manner) is correct: the damage wrought by Microsoft's use of copyright protection has stunted the industry (an industry that is vigorous enough to grow at great speed even under these conditions, but which no doubt would be better off if there were an open standard). (Given the importance of the software industry, Microsoft's use of copyright has also had a huge (and, in our opinion, not positive) effect on the world economy.)
       The book offers many examples and many ideas, and its main value is in framing the important questions. (Boyle also offers answers, but these one can argue about.) Boyle also writes well, and the examples are certainly interesting.
       This is a useful book, and we recommend it highly -- anything to get you thinking about these questions !

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Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Reviews: James Boyle: Other Books of Interest under Review:

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About the Author:

       James Boyle graduated from Glasgow University and Harvard Law School. He is a Professor at American University, and has also taught at Duke, Harvard, and Yale.

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