Casting Light on Cultural Property

Theorists of private property invite comparison to theorists of light. For centuries, the latter have debated whether light is best understood as a wave or as a photon. The rivalry has been intense because each hypothesis explains some characteristics of light very well, but others very poorly. Wave theory outstrips photon theory in explaining such phenomena as light’s frequencies and diffraction patterns. But photon theory, which reduces light to a succession of particles, more effectively explains such subatomic phenomena as changes in an atom’s orbital shell produced by the interaction of photons and electrons. Property theorists too can be viewed as occupying different positions on a spectrum. On one end are those supporting a conception of property as a self-contained and bounded photon; on the other, those favoring a model of property as a wave registering, indeed incorporating, the tensions and values of the social ether through which the wave moves.