Analogies to semantic and syntactic mental labour in the Feist decision

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The Supreme Court of the United States in Feist v. Rural (Feist, 1991) specified that compilations or databases, and other works, must have a minimal degree of creativity to be copyrightable. The significance and global diffusion of the decision is only matched by the difficulties it has posed for interpretation. The judgment does not specify what is to be understood by creativity, although it does give a full account of the negative of creativity, as ‘so mechanical or routine as to require no creativity whatsoever’ (Feist, 1991, p.362). The negative of creativity as highly mechanical has particularly diffused globally.

A recent interpretation has correlated ‘so mechanical’ (Feist, 1991) with an automatic mechanical procedure or computational process, using a rigorous exegesis fully to correlate the two uses of mechanical. The negative of creativity is then understood as an automatic computation and as a highly routine process. Creativity is itself is conversely understood as non-computational activity, above a certain level of routinicity (Warner, 2013).

The distinction between the negative of creativity and creativity is strongly analogous to an independently developed distinction between forms of mental labour, between semantic and syntactic labour. Semantic labour is understood as human labour motivated by considerations of meaning and syntactic labour as concerned solely with patterns. Semantic labour is distinctively human while syntactic labour can be directly humanly conducted or delegated to machine, as an automatic computational process (Warner, 2005; 2010, pp.33-41).

The value of the analogy is to greatly increase the intersubjective scope of the distinction between semantic and syntactic mental labour. The global diffusion of the standard for extreme absence of copyrightability embodied in the judgment also indicates the possibility that the distinction fully captures the current transformation in the distribution of mental labour, where syntactic tasks which were previously humanly performed are now increasingly conducted by machine.

The paper has substantive and methodological relevance to the conference themes. Substantively, it is concerned with human creativity, with rationality as not reducible to computation, and has relevance to the language myth, through its indirect endorsement of a non-computable or not mechanical semantics. These themes are supported by the underlying idea of technology as a human construction. Methodologically, it is rooted in the humanities and conducts critical thinking through exegesis and empirically tested theoretical development


Feist. (1991). Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Service Co., Inc. 499 U.S. 340.

Warner, J. (2005). Labor in information systems. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology. 39, 2005, pp.551-573.

Warner, J. (2010). Human Information Retrieval (History and Foundations of Information Science Series). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Warner, J. (2013). Creativity for Feist. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. 64, 6, 2013, pp.1173-1192.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jun 2014
EventIntegrationism and Humanism - Oberägeri, Switzerland
Duration: 23 Jun 201426 Jun 2014


ConferenceIntegrationism and Humanism


  • Mental labour, copyright, information technology, information society

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Analogies to semantic and syntactic mental labour in the Feist decision'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this