Web 2.0: Lawrence Lessig

Web 2.0: Lawrence Lessig

: He recalls slam a slam review of his last book from Fortune. “What did he do? What he did was to take my words, my creativity, with his own…” He calls the review a “right to remix without permission from anyone.”

“That world of text knows this freedom well… ” He goes beyond text to the gray album and a $218 movie that could have won Cannes and a Peanuts remix and political digital fun.

This is remix culture. “No longer just a broadcast democracy but a bottoms up democracy, no longer just a New York Times democracy but a blog democracy… This is the architecture of this form of creativity.”

He says the laws have “massively changed.” Before 78, copyright was opt-in; now it is opt-out.

He goes into the case of Greenwald and his attempt to get a clip of Bush from NBC and says it is made worse by media consolidation.

“I have no patience for people who file-share illegally,” he says. But he says we go overboard in trying to deal with that, teaching children to remix Shakespeare but not Lucas.

Lessig is, as I’ve long been told, incredibly impressive at this. He is compelling and convincing. But I still want someone smarter than me to spar with him to cut through some of the rhetorical flash and demonizing to hear the other side that does exist and to get closer to solutions. I’m very impressed with Lessig. He is swaying me on the need to protect remixing (though I disagree with the assumption that all creativity depends on remixing). But there is also a need to protect owners of creation. I want to hear both sides together. Debate is more informative than lecture, even if it is from the PowerPoint impressario.

  • Michael

    “(though I disagree with the assumption that all creativity depends on remixing)”
    This is the commonly held notion that nothing is genuinely original – all acts of creation are somehow, in some fashion, based on earlier work. For example, the way I phrased that sentence is based on my experience learning and reading other sentences and how to properly structure a sentence. Everything is a riff on something else.
    Now, we all kind try to find examples of truly creative actions: Jackson Pollack? John Cage? I dunno, but those who believe this maintain that even their work is rooted in some earlier tradition or form.

  • Hunter McDaniel

    Lessig would not deny the existence or importance of creativity. But yes, every new work of art, science, or technology, is to a large extent built on top of what has come before; the original components are inseparable from the “remixed” components. That’s why it has taken millenia to reach where we are today. And if we assign ownership to every element of existing science and culture and then have to negotiate our way throught the resulting thicket with lawyers, we are all poorer as the result.
    It is very ironic that our lawmakers have been extending length and reach of these ownership locks at the very point in history where the cycle times for innovation are shorter and shorter.

  • Lessig’s reductive account of creativity obscures the underlying issues. Yes, in some sense every creative work shares “elements” with prior works, depending on what we consider these “elements” to be. If I write a novel in the English language, I’m using the same English words that every other author used (unless I’m James Joyce writing incoherent rubbish in “Finnegan’s Wake”) so the reductive Lessig would say I’ve simply re-mixed the dictionary.
    But that analysis really misses the point, doesn’t it? My novel is unique because I combine words in my own way to tell my story and evoke images and emotions and points of view in a unique tapestry, etc.
    Similarly with inventions: they’re all constrained by the very same laws of physics and mathematics, but that doesn’t really mean they’re fundamentally derivative and trivial. Inventions combine existing elements in novel ways, but often can only do so by introducing brand new “elements” into the mix. The light bulb depended on glass-blowing, vacuum pumps, and electricity, but Edison had to find the right chemical alloy to use for the filament to make it practical.
    Lessig’s problem is that he spends his days analyzing regulatory policy for activities and technologies that he fundamentally doesn’t understand, such as the Internet and music. So he’s like a bull in a china shop, wrecking this thing and that one as he stumbles around.
    Letting go of the reductive over-simplifications would be a good start for anybody who cares about this sphere of policy. Having done that, let’s appreciate that assigning ownership rights for limited times to inventions is one of the things that we pioneered in America, in our very original constitution, and it’s one of the reasons we have the best economy in the world.
    Throwing out this provision of our system of government in the interest of god knows what doesn’t strike me as a very sensible prescription, even if were coming from somebody well-informed about technology and music.

  • Hunter McDaniel

    Lessig’s point is that the same drug which is beneficial in one dosage (e.g., IP protections) can be toxic in larger dosages, and that we have drastically increased both the terms and the reach of IP in the last generation. His additional insight is to understand the radical nature of the emerging “permission culture”, which is fundamentally at odd with liberties we Americans, both left and right, have always taken for granted.

  • ZF

    Larry Lessig’s ‘MTV rap video’ presentation style was certainly entertaining. I can believe it goes down very well with his students, and it got him what appeared to be the most enthusiastic ovation of the whole conference.
    His material on the battles over ownership of Daguerrotype images and the limited nature of copyright restrictions prior to 1978 was good (although you do start to lose credibility when you put up slides showing apparently detailed year by year data, but no labels on the Y axis to tell us just exactly what it is we are supposed to be being impressed by).
    Lessig’s success during the first part of his presentation, persuading us that there are things we ought to be worrying about concerning IP ownership today, went on to undermine the impact of his funny and otherwise effective rant about Fox News, the ability to replay/remix clips of Presidential interviews, etc. He convinced me that there are serious issues at stake which are likely to be resolved only by either determined efforts from within our own industry or some sort of broad-based political movement. I kept expecting him to say “so let’s get serious” and say something about how this might happen in the real world, but he chose not to and took the applause instead.
    In the end he came across as a visitor from a cocooned world in which one never has to get serious about anything. A Liberal Arts professor from Stanford? Surely not…

  • Hunter McDaniel

    ZF, I would agree that Lessig is not always the ideal spokesman for the cause he promotes. In his rhetoric and choice of examples he often narrows rather than broadens the appeal of his fundamental points. In any case, he is what he is but I believe most of his fundamental insights on IP are quite accurate.
    I agree that we need broad-based coalition, but I’m not sure where it comes from. The good news is that this hasn’t yet turned into a partisan issue on which nothing can be accomplished. The bad news is that both parties at the congressional level have been more sympathetic to the established players than to the public interest. In earlier times, the electronics and tech industries were a counterweight to the content providers, but the DMCA has upset that balance.

  • What on earth is a “permission culture” and how is it add odds with libery? At what point in American history has it been OK to steal other people’s property?
    And just exactly how is that the Evil Corporations are at odds with the Public Interest when corporations survive and prosper by appealing to it?
    These false dichotomies touch a lot of emotional buttons but fail to clarify any important issues.

  • Hunter McDaniel

    >What on earth is a “permission culture”
    It’s a state where the default assumption for use or reference to cultural works is “forbidden unless expressly permitted”, rather than “permitted unless expressly forbidden”.
    >At what point in American history has it been OK to steal other people’s property?
    At that point where characters and expressions created nearly a century ago were not considered anyone’s property in the first place. Which is to say for MOST of our history since the founding of the republic.
    Please don’t lump me with those who blame everything on EVIL CORPORATIONS. I work for one, and we just try to make a buck within the rules as we find them. My beef is with the rulemakers.

  • I seem to recall a provision about patents in the US Constitution, Hunter, which wasn’t put there by amendment. I suggest your reading of history, and Lessig’s, is somewhat flawed.
    “Reference to cultural works” without permission is perfectly permissible under our current rules, as long as it conforms to Fair Use and isn’t pure exploitation of another’s labor. We can argue about what sort of conditions should circumscribe fair use, patent, and copyright generally, but there’s not much of an argument for dismantling the whole system.
    If there really was as much tension between culture and business on the one hand and IPR on the other as Lessig claims, there would be some hue and cry from businesses adversely affected, but there really isn’t. So like most of what Lessig has done, this alarmist rhetoric is just another example of chicken little saying the sky is falling.

  • Doug Lay

    There was a pretty big hue and cry from businesses over the proposed Induce Act – enough to get the proposed legislation taken off the table for this session of Congress, in fact. Given the bipartisan bunch of Senators that Hatch had lined up in favor of his silly proposal, I doubt he would have pulled it off the table if it was only consumer activist groups and Lawrence Lessig complaining about it. In fact, a broad coalition of companies – Internet, consumer electronics, even the BSA – came out strong against the Induce Act and the content industry power grab that it represented.

  • Hunter McDaniel

    I’m well aware of the patent/copyright clauses in the Constitution. But copyrights were originally allowed only for a duration of 14 years (with one renewal), and very limited in scope. They protected the printing of books and little else.
    Today we have copyrights that can extend for over 100 years and cover much broader scope. Not to mention software patents, a recent concept which has caused a “land grab” by companies to claim exclusive rights to obvious concepts. Plus we have laws like the DMCA which prohibit inventions which can circumvent copy protections no matter what legitimate uses they may have. Sort of like outlawing crowbars because they might also be used by burglars. If the DMCA had existed back in the 80’s, Al Gore would never have been able to invent the Internet. And as a practical matter fair use does not exist in current law unless you are big enough fish to hire your own legal team.
    Lessig does not advocate dismantling IP, nor do I. But I would like to see reform that restores balance more in keeping with our historical tradition.
    Stopping the INDUCE act this week was a good sign, but it’s sad that such a bill was even contemplated.

  • If the DMCA had existed back in the 80’s, Al Gore would never have been able to invent the Internet.