Attribution as a Moral Right

Posted by Leena Simon on March 21, 2014

by Antje Käske

At Commons Machinery we are interested not only in finding a technical solution for the problem of attributing intellectual digital work but also in moral questions regarding attribution. We are happy to have Antje Käske – who studied philosophy and has a keen interest in defining the rights of intellectual workers – writing a guest post dealing with attribution as a moral right.

In his blog post “Is attribution really that important?” Mathias Klang argues that attribution is necessary because only when we know who created something, are we able to show our respect for that person. According to Klang, intellectual work is something worthy of our respect and attribution is a way of showing that respect. Attribution is therefore something very interesting: It is not just a speech act but a moral act. By naming the creator of an intellectual product we already show our respect for his or her work. That means attribution is not only an act of saying that someone did something – but it is a very particular moral act, the act of valuing another person’s achievements.

Why, however, is the work of an intellectual worker worthy of the moral act of attribution? Is it just because “he worked hard to produce something of value” as Mathias Klang describes it? The factory worker who assembles parts of cars works hard as well. We do not, however, consider it necessary to show our respect for her work by attributing to her every single car that consists of the parts she assembled. Intellectual work is therefore different from the kind of work that such a factory worker does. What is the main difference?

The main difference must be the intellectual part. The work of the described factory worker is mechanical. There is neither an individual nor a creative input to the work. The worker can be replaced by any other. Of course one worker might be more precise or faster, etc., but the work can be done by anybody who is trained to do it. The product will always be the same – it will look the same, will function in the same way, etc. This is not the case for the product of intellectual work. The intellectual worker puts his individual intellect, his individual creativity and imagination into his work. Those can not be reproduced by any other person in the exact same way.

Therefore it is more than just the hard work that we recognise when we attribute intellectual goods. We recognise and show respect for the individual and personal connection that a creator has to her intellectual work. The individual connection is based on the creator’s individual mind, creativity, imagination. Because she uses her individual capacities of mind to bring something into existence, this something is fundamentally connected to her.

My proposal is the following: Because the connection between a creator and his intellectual good is an individual and personal one, attribution is not only a moral act but it is a MORAL RIGHT. The users and consumers of intellectual goods have a moral obligation to respect the creators originary connection to her product. Even though – but this is a different topic – intellectual creations are never the sole creation of one individual. All intellectual work is based on knowledge or on other intellectual goods that already exist. That however does not lessen the creators connection to his intellectual product.