Creative Commons & James Hogg’s mother

by Paul Maharg on 12/04/2006

Larry Lessig launched Creative Commons in Malta directly after the BILETA conference.  When he quoted Sousa’s words about the ubiquity of ‘talking machines’ that played music, and Sousa’s lament that this would stop people singing songs as they did of old, I was reminded of Walter Scott’s encounter with James Hogg’s mother, Margaret Laidlaw. 

The three of them met when Scott, in antiquarian and ballad-collector mode, was seeking out material for the second edition of his phenomenally successful Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders.  The volume is not a painstaking work of historical scholarship: it contained many poems modified or ‘improved’ by Scott.  Margaret Laidlaw saw right to the core of the issue at once:

…there was never ane o’ my songs prentit till ye prentit them yoursell, an’ ye hae spoilt them a’thegither. They war made for singing, an’ no for reading; and they’re nouther right spelled nor right setten down.

Hogg, James (ed. D. Mack). Memoirs of the Author’s Life and Familiar Anecdotes of Sir Walter Scott. Edinburgh: and London: Scottish Academic Press, 1972, 62

This is sometimes taken as one statement of a cultural turning-point, whereby songs and ballads are removed, irrecoverably, from the oral tradition and fixed in writing, to be the better sited within a new context of print-based, capitalist culture – Ong, Havelock, Olsen, etc. 

But let’s see it in another context, that of Creative Commons.  Rewind and imagine Wattie, good lawyer that he was, telling her printing of the songs was inevitable, someone will be doing it sooner or later, producing a CC license, and taking her through the options.  What might her response be?  Actually she might object to the conflict of interest in Wattie being her lawyer at all, given the huge profit he made from the first edition of Minstrelsy (and which mightily impressed her son).  Or – shrewd lady that she was – she might insist on exclusive terms: that Scott record her on his iPod, then create a website around the digital files that sets out the context of the songs, etc.,and they become partners in the highly lucrative business of Reinventing Scotland for the Romantic Age. 

Ah, weel.  As it was, on cultural, historical and business terms, she and the entire oral tradition lost out, and Wattie’s hand rewrote Scotland for the world.

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