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Literary Collaboration and Control

Benjamin "Mako" Hill sees the humor in his senior thesis—he sits alone at a computer and writes about the importance of collaborative authorship. But, he's been doing a lot of collaborative writing lately, too.

In addition to finishing his thesis, or "Division III" as it is called at Hampshire College, where he will graduate May 17, and working on graduate school applications, Hill is looking forward to three forthcoming publications: Mute, a magazine of art and technical issues, commissioned an article by him, "Software, Politics and Indymedia." He co-authored "Quality and the Reliance on Individuals in Free Software Development," which will be in the proceedings of the Third Annual Conference on Open-Source Software Engineering. And, he is second author of a chapter in Free/Open Source Software Development, perhaps the first academic book on free software.

The publications prove many of the points of Hill's Hampshire thesis, which has a working title of "Literary Collaboration and Control." He is working with people living in Britain, Rome, Australia and India, whose ages and experiences differ greatly from his, some of whom he met only after collaborating with them on writing projects.

"In the Division III, I'm looking at the nature of the relationship of collaboration to systematic control in writing," Hill said. "You can have really amazing things when people come together and work together, but there are barriers—social conventions, legal mechanisms like copyrights, and issues of technical control."

The Seattle, Washington, native has long been involved with the free software movement, which is based on sharing and extensive collaboration. That international community led him to collaborative writing projects and to creative analysis of what technology might make possible. Combined with his interests in literature, philosophy and politics, his ideas about shared software led naturally to similar ideas about shared authorship.

The Internet now makes possible simultaneous, collaborative creation and control of written work, but the existing conventions and legal barriers create systems of control that make full collaboration difficult. For example, Hill says, the only legal means for collective control of a written work are "works for hire," in which the copyright is owned by an entity that did not produce it, or "joint authorship," which requires all authors to make copyrightable contributions, an option he describes as "the legal equivalent of splitting the baby."

Hill's research for his project included studying the history of books and print culture, and his thesis includes numerous examples of when and how collaborative authorship did work beautifully, such as Chinese literature and the Talmud. He is also interested in the author/editor relationship, and the theory that, due to that relationship, many respected literary works might be more accurately described as works by two authors.

Hampshire professors on Hill's Division III faculty committee are Professor of Communications James Miller (chair) and Associate Professor of History James Wald. Hill is also working with Stephen J. Harris in the English department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Amherst journalist and activist David Bollier.

"Mako's done some very daring work," said Miller. "He's tried to show how, historically, most writing has a collaborative nature. Then, an individualistic, 'Romantic' notion of authorship took hold, and was given special legal status through copyright.

"He also looks at how most software is designed to constrain collaboration and block modification. His counter examples—the ones he would like to see become influential—are open source computer code and software collectives, and the 'commons' movement, of which David Bollier is a leading figure. This is a wonderful Division III, not least because it brought together such a diverse committee."

Read more about Hill's Div III
Read more about his other work


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