Division III Proposal

Literary Collaboration and the Control of Ideas: The History, Technology, and Legal Philosophy of Collaborative Literary Creation

Benjamin (Mako) Hill

Version 0.3 | Fri, 7 Feb 2003 10:14:04 -0500


The free software movement provides an example of the way that collaboration promotes the creation of more, better, and radically different creative works than those produced by creators working alone. Largely facilitated by various information and communication technologies (in combination or in concert) with the philosophical and legal imperative to provide free/open access over intellectual productions, the movement also demonstrates the importance of framing collaboration within a legal and philosophical context that upholds and promotes openness and sharing.

In spirit and intent, my Division III is an attempt to apply a philosophy of collaboration and control steeped in the free software movement to the literary world. In both arenas, collaboration has been downplayed and stifled to allow for the dominance of particular methods of control. As is the case with the free software movement, technology that is changing the materiality of literature has begun to bring attention to collaboration in unprecedented ways. My arguments will primarily derive out of the history, philosophy, technology and experience of literature itself as opposed to the experiences of free software programmers.

To succeed in this goal, the project adopts a radically interdisciplinary form approaching the theme from historical, legal, and technological perspectives. The historical portion will provide background and demonstrate the importance and power of collaborative work; the technological analysis will describe ways that society can utilize existing technology to facilitate meaningful collaboration; the legal analysis discussion will describe both why collaboration is important to the production of new works and the interchange of ideas and how and why various social actors must critique existing systems of information ownership and control in order to create, promote, and foster a new, meaningful collaborative literary environment.

Each section forms a distinct--but interconnected--unit. Combined, the three approaches will form a single argument that exhibits the diversity and interdisciplinary nature essential to achieving the project's goals. Together, these approaches will begin to examine the ideas of authorship, control, and collaboration in a way that can hope to shed some light on the complex problems that advancing technology is plunging the literary world into. They will describe collaboration as a process that can create more literature of a higher quality faster-and, most importantly, more fairly. They will include steps toward providing an alternative to the dominant and uncomfortable solutions we've been offered so far.


Any grounded, complete, or multi-faceted analysis of current trends requires a historical perspective. I will integrate existing historical research to create a firm foundation for my legal and technological work arguments. I will consider the ways that collaboration has dominated the literary landscape, has been challenged, has been overlooked, and has persisted. I will use a wide array of secondary sources to demonstrate that collaboration is a persistent and persistently effective literary method.

I will read this history of collaboration next to a critical history of authorship and associated mechanisms of literary control that include, most notably, copyright. I will use this analysis as a way of exploring patterns and trends in the history of the relationship of literary control and collaboration. That is, how legal forms of control such as copyright have often limited the potential for and directly shaped dominant processes of literary creation.


I will provide a technological survey and analysis of modern technology with the goal of assessing which technologies can best facilitate collaborative literary creation.

I will write a review of currently available collaborative technologies. The first step in this process will be the development of a critical framework for assessing software that promotes collaboration by allowing multiple authors to work on a single text. I will create a theoretical methodology for classifying and critiquing collaborative literary technologies. This framework will include discussions of version control, real-time communication, change tracking, and graphical interfaces.

With this review in hand, I will synthesize and extrapolate my own recommendations from the experiences of previously unconnected software developers, writers, and theorists into a description of the technological tools necessary to promote meaningful and effective collaboration.

I will put forward my own rough technical model for a system that aims to fulfill the goals stated in the analysis and synthesis above. Through free/open source development over the semester, I will attempt to guide development toward a working version of this software. This process will also enable me to tie in my work with free software by allowing me to ascertain what might be common to literary and technological forms of creation as well as what might be distinct and how the differences might necessitate different types of technological solutions.

Legally and Philosophically

In the final portion I will approach group creation and control from legal and philosophical perspectives. I will argue that collaborative literary creation is necessary for the the production, creation, and sustenance of a vibrant literary environment and for democratic society. I will describe the problematic nature of contemporary methods of control, namely copyright, examining how it curtails meaningful collaboration and its negative socio-cultural effects on cultural production more generally. I will reference discussions of conceptions of authorship that provide the theoretical basis for systems of control like copyright.

This final section will also serve to describe where I think collaborative literary creation is headed. I will investigate trends and then offer my own position of how to best foster literary collaboration. I will argue that by creating and controlling collaboratively, we are all able to achieve more.

This work will be influenced by arguments made by Lawrence Lessig, David Bollier, and Eben Moglen among many others.

Mako Hill
Last modified: Wed Feb 12 13:24:10 EST 2003