The Fountainhead: Work for Hire

Blueprint

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 11

With Austen Heller’s money flowing in, Howard Roark opens his own office:

It was one large room on the top of an old building, with a broad window high over the roofs. He could see the distant band of the Hudson at his window sill, with the small streaks of ships moving under his fingertips when he pressed them to the glass. He had a desk, two chairs, and a huge drafting table. The glass entrance door bore the words: “Howard Roark, Architect.”

No sooner has he set up shop than his old boss John Erik Snyte shows up. But he’s not angry; in fact, he wants to apologize:

“Look, fellow, I hope you’ve got sense enough not to hold it against me, anything that I might’ve said yesterday. You know how it is, I lost my head a little, and it wasn’t what you did, but that you had to go and do it on that sketch, that sketch… well, never mind. No hard feelings?”

“No,” said Roark. “None at all.”

“Of course, you’re not fired. You didn’t take me seriously, did you? You can go right back to work here this very minute.”

“What for, Mr. Snyte?”

As I noted in the comments on last week‘s post, Roark doesn’t have any ill will against his old boss. Ironically, that makes his actions less defensible, rather than more.

If Snyte had told Roark to get out, and then Roark started his own competing firm as an act of spite, it would be at least somewhat understandable. But Roark’s cold-blooded indifference makes it clear that this was his plan from day one. Even though Snyte helped Roark out when he desperately needed it, Roark never felt any sense of loyalty or residual obligation to him.

He always intended to quit and start his own business the first chance he got. He never saw Snyte as anything more than a stepping stone toward that goal – someone he could take advantage of and then discard as soon as it served his purpose. You could argue that in a capitalist system, Snyte had no right to expect anything more, but saying that this behavior was legally allowable isn’t the same thing as saying it’s moral or praiseworthy.

Snyte insists that Heller can’t be trusted and will change his mind about what he wants, but Roark says they’ve already signed the contract:

“Well, look, Roark, I’ll tell you what we’ll do: you bring the commission back to us and I’ll let you put your name on it with mine — ‘John Erik Snyte & Howard Roark.’ And we’ll split the fee. That’s in addition to your salary — and you’re getting a raise, incidentally. Then we’ll have the same arrangement on any other commission you bring in. And… Lord, man, what are you laughing at?”

This is another example of how The Fountainhead shows us something completely different from what it tells us. Rand insists that the whole world is biased against her hero and wants to see him fail. But from the evidence of her own text, nothing could be further from the truth.

If that were the case, Snyte would have come in full villain mode, glowering and making threats and promising he’ll ruin Roark at any cost. Instead, Snyte is genuinely apologetic, and he’s offering Roark a very good deal: his job back, with a raise, plus the credit for designing the Heller house, plus the chance to build more of his own houses the way he wants to on any commissions he can bring in to the firm, on a full partnership basis. Considering Roark was working there for just a few months, that’s an astoundingly generous offer.

So naturally, Roark laughs in his face.

“But, good Lord, man, you’ve lost your mind! To set up alone now! Without experience, without connections, without… well, without anything at all! I never heard of such a thing. Ask anybody in the profession. See what they’ll tell you. It’s preposterous!”

“Probably.”

“Listen. Roark, won’t you please listen?”

“I’ll listen if you want me to, Mr. Snyte. But I think I should tell you now that nothing you can say will make any difference. If you don’t mind that, I don’t mind listening.”

Defeated, Snyte leaves, but only after promising that he won’t take Roark back if he falls on hard times and that no one else is going to hire him either once they hear about this. Roark is cool and calm about burning his last bridge: “I don’t expect it, Mr. Snyte.”

For a few days Snyte thought of suing Roark and Heller. But he decided against it, because there was no precedent to follow under the circumstances: because Heller had paid him for his efforts, and the house had been actually designed by Roark; and because no one ever sued Austen Heller.

This hearkens back to what I said about the difference between what Rand shows and what she tells. Usually, she never misses a chance to introduce setbacks and challenges for her heroes to overcome. It’s ironic, then, that when she has a genuine problem she could drop in Roark’s path, she skips over it with a handwave of “no one ever sues Austen Heller”.

Roark’s design is what lawyers call a “work for hire” – it was made while he was an employee of Snyte’s firm, doing the work that Snyte hired him to do. Under copyright law, that means the design is Snyte’s intellectual property, not Roark’s. Whether or not Heller paid for the design, if Snyte wanted to stand on his rights and insist that the house be built by his firm or no one, he’d have a solid case.

Since we’re told the world hates Roark and hungers for him to fail, this would be a fitting, even realistic obstacle for him to face. Imagine the drama you could wring from a plot about the great hero of architecture tied up in court, kept from building his unique modernist house for the little, niggling reason that the design isn’t actually his property. It would allow scenes where Roark sits and broods over a half-finished foundation, maybe wrapped in red tape for metaphorical effect. Best of all, it would be a perfect justification for one of those Dramatic Courtroom Scenes that Ayn Rand loved so much. (There’ll be one later on, but for a very different reason.)

It’s not as if Roark could just design another house for the same spot, either. As EchoChamberEscapee and Karl Withakay discussed in last week’s comments, Rand’s theology leads to the bizarre conclusion that there’s only one possible house you can build for a given person on a given spot. Arguably, even if Heller hired another architect, as long as that person was an Objectivist Hero like Roark, we’re supposed to believe that they’d come up with the exact same design. This flows directly from Rand’s view that there’s one objectively correct way to do everything which any true capitalist can see.

As with Atlas Shrugged, this showcases the Randian paradox of fierce individualists who have no individuality. Her protagonists have no creativity, as such. They’re just the medium by which the perfect Platonic forms of Objectivist ideas are brought into material existence.

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