Imagined Collectivities and Multiple Authorship

Summary of: Imagined Collectivities and Multiple Authorship

Author(s) / Editor(s)

Certain communities of Papua New Guinea participate in a kind of multiple (as opposed to collective) authorship of collectively owned cultural products, which may shed light on emerging property rights problems around common pool resources such as the human genome that are in some sense owned collectively.

Publication Reference

Published in/by
Code: Collaborative Ownership and the Digital Economy, ed. Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, MIT Press


  • Old conceptions of property regimes are now colliding with private wealth and public goods that have become possible through science and technology, from molecular biology to networked computation. Anthropologists who have studied cultures outside the Western, industrial, capitalist milieu have discovered modes of production and ownership that offer existence proofs to the present exclusive alternatives of private property and collective ownership.
  • The author notes that emergent practices such as production networks, collective knowledge creations such as open source software and science itself point to the reality of new forms of value that are both created and owned by communities: "I don't know what kind of contribution the open source software movement might make, but end with Century's provocative remark about the massiveness of data in circulation, where the politics of access shift from mere indexing to social forms of filtering, and (he says) 'communities of interest help sort out what is meaningful.'" (Michael Century, "Open Code and Creativity in the Digital Age,

Citing controversies over the ownership of the human genome, Strathern examines intellectual property practices among tribal people in Papua New Guinea. A commemorative sculpture is made by a group of artisans; other people pay to participate in a ritual in which the sculpture is displayed to only paying participants, then burned. The paid participants have the right to reproduce the pattern of the sculpture in their own future rituals and those who did not pay to see it do not have the right. The actual object no longer exists, and the intellectual property is distributed among the memories of the participants. The sculpture is a "distributed object," and the network of artisans and ritual participants are both collaborative creators and collective owners of a virtual property - a structure of ownership and distribution that parallels in interesting ways emergent forms of co-created property such as the genome, ethnopharmacological knowledge, or open source software.