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Free Culture: Lawrence Lessig’s book and my thoughts

April 26th, 2004 · 1 Comment

One of the books I read while en route to Boston and back was Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture. The subtitle of the book is How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. Today seems to be a particularly appropriate day to post my summary of this book, as I will explain later…

Lawrence Lessig made his book available on-line via pdf download, which is what I did, although we will be purchasing a copy. Multiple remixes are available
including an audio version here with one chapter read by my friend Enoch Choi. Clicking through the various derivatives on the remixes page is fun: peek at the various html ones, for example…

Free Culture explained to me what it is that we could have as a society and what we have lost.

Digital technologies tied to the Internet could produce a vastly more competitive and vibrant market for building and cultivating culture; that market could include a much wider and more diverse range of creators; those creators could produce and distribute a much more vibrant range of creativity; and depending upon a few important factors, those creators could earn more on average from this system than creators do today – all so long as the RCAs of our day don’t use the law to protect themselves against this competition. Introduction, page 9.

Like Yochai Benkler’s paper, this book of Lessig’s envisioned a society where creativity thrives. While Benkler described the economic benefits of such a society, Lessig details the map from a legal perspective: where we are and what needs to happen in order to get there.

Below I’ll excerpt some quotes that indicate the direction of the book:

What happened when the Kodak camera was invented reminded me of another new “technology of expression”.

Amateur photography gave them the ability to record their own lives in a way they had never been able to do before. p. 33

I liked the description of the Just Think! media literacy project empowering youth. (p. 37).

The potential of blogs received some commentary and he also mentioned open source.

Lessig, a lawyer, seemed to have open eyes in his description of the state of law in society today, the “absurdity” of the current law and its impact on the arts, and the hypocrisy of teaching law students to live “normally and legally’. He also spent two chapters in the book describing his experience with the Eldred case before the Supreme Court. The stories of young people handing over their life savings to the RIAA are particularly powerful to me.

Can common sense recognize the absurdity in a world where the maximum fine for downloading two songs off of the Internet is more than the fine for a doctor’s negligently butchering a patient? p.185

The building of a permission culture rather than a free culture is the first important way in which the changes I have described will burden innovation. A permission culture means a lawyer’s culture – a culture in which the ability to create requires a call to your lawyer. Again I am not antilawyer, at least when they’re kept in their proper place. I am certainly not antilaw. But our profession has lost the sense of its limits. p. 192

As my colleague Charlie Nelson told a class at Stanford, each year law schools admit thousands of students who have illegally downloaded music, illegally consumed alcohol and sometimes drugs, illegally worked without paying taxes, illegally driven cars. These are kids for whom behaving illegally is increasingly the norm. And then we, as law professors, are supposed to teach them how to behave ethically.. […] Generations of Americans – more significantly in some parts of America than others, but still, everywhere, in American today – can’t live their lives both normally and legally, since “normally” entails a certain amount of illegality.p.201

Lessig explained how “intellectual property” principles are keeping HIV treatment information from helping Africans dying of AIDS.

Now just step back for a moment. There will be a time thirty years from now when our children look back at us and ask, how could we have let this happen? How could we allow a policy to be pursued whose direct cost would be to speed the death of 15 to 30 million Africans, and whose only real benefit would be to uphold the ‘”sanctity” of an idea? p.260

But we as a culture have lost this sense of balance. We have lost the critical eye that helps us see the difference between truth and extremism. A certain property fundamentalism, having no connection to our tradition, now reigns in this culture – bizarrely, and with consequences more grave to the spread of ideas and culture than almost any other single policy that we as a democracy will make.

A simple idea blinds us, and under the cover of darkness, much happens that most of us would reject if any of us looked. p.261

What to do?

If there is one lesson that we can draw from the history of remaking common sense, it is that it requires remaking how many people think about the very same issue.
This means this movement must begin in the streets. It must recruit a significant number of parents, teachers, librarians, creators, authors, musicians, filmmakers, scientists – all to tell this story in their own words, and to tell their neighbors why this battle is so important.
Once this movement has its effect in the streets, it has some hope of having an effect in Washington. We are still a democracy…p.275

I haven’t thought about copyright and creativity much. I saw it as property. When a magazine published a story of mine years ago, I was concerned about my rights, and wanted to be certain it said “copyright” with my name on every page. From what I knew, my creativity was property to be protected.

Reading Lessig’s book has shown me how a free culture – as compared to a permission culture – allows creativity to flourish and everyone benefits. His vivid examples from his own cases as well as the damage done by RIAA and pharmaceutical patents (AIDS) were powerful. After reading the book I feel motivated to “tell the story in my own words”.

When you focus the issue on lost creativity, people can see the copyright system makes no sense. p. 249

Application Today: Current Blogging Debate

Today is particulary appropriate because this weekend John Inluminent posted a piece describing how quoteblogs = theft and Robert Scoble closed his aggregator blog, concerned about the legality of quoting weblog posts.

I revisited Free Culture and the Creative Commons website, seeking answers. From what I can tell, the issue seems to be what is “fair use” of weblogs.

If everyone had a Creative Commons license, then quoting each other would be easy. Permission would be clear. However, as Elisabeth Riba pointed out this weekend, until we all have such licenses, one person blogging under Creative Commons affects others, whomever the blogger cites.

[Among the modifications I considered but eventually rejected, I investigated switching from copyright to a Creative Commons license for my blog. But because I make (what I believe to be) fair-use excerpts from copyrighted works, I’m uncomfortable with the thought that this licensing could risk other people’s legal protections. So, I’m keeping the copyright notice for now.]

It seems to be some kind of cyclical Catch-22. I’m not sure what to do.

Note: as I was writing this I saw Lisa Williams’ addition of Fair Use and Transparency to her Blogging Principles:

I will refrain from reproducing more of a post or an article than is neccessary to make my point, and provide links back to the author’s blog or original publication wherever possible.

There is the other issue of ads and links that I noticed while reading through the comments and discussion. If I quote another post in its entirety – or perhaps even more than a line or two – then I am taking away possible links from that site. If someone is seeking revenue from their blog, lost traffic equals lost profit. That could be another form of theft, perhaps.

My opinion for my own blog is that I don’t mind being quoted so long as attribution is made. I do like to include excerpts in my blog. I see my blog as a dialogue and I’d rather quote someone – as I would in an email – and respond to specific statements than paraphrase or write vague lines of linking.

Jay McCarthy wrote that he prefers “small quote or summary linking” to a linkblog. He has linked to me a few times, and I notice a difference depending on how he does it. If Jay posts one line (or mentions a picture of himself!), I find that I get more traffic than if he posts a few paragraphs from my post. I suppose if traffic mattered to me I would prefer the more mysterious method of linking. Example:I like what Julie Leung posted or Julie Leung wrote something amazing today :). It’s a bit more teasing and intriguing. But I think it may make for irritating rather than interesting reading – constantly flipping back and forth between blogs. I don’t think it’s in-depth dialogue. I like to include excerpts as if I were writing an academic paper and proving my points (or merely enjoying the post and sharing that delight with others!). But what I like isn’t as important to me as what is legal.

I feel that writing a blog is stating that I want to be quoted. I’m putting myself on a public page. I’m writing here saying “Link to me”. Of course I wouldn’t want to be quoted or linked in a situation that went against my values or beliefs, such as using posts to promote various, um, explicit photographs for example. Looking in my referrer list though I see that this is happening – or at least some not-so-nice sites are using my name and link. I feel it is a risk I am taking. Where am I going to draw the line? Am I going to police everyone who links me? Or demand that people receive email confirmation before linking to me? If I published a book on paper, how would I control what others want to say about it? I’d rather have the freedom and the risks that come with it.

Where I find myself at the moment, I believe, is that I’m wanting to become one of those “in the streets” for free culture but not sure what I can do. Perhaps working through my own list of blogging principles and fair use as Lisa did would be an appropriate first step. I wonder what is the way that we as a community can work through these principles together? How can we find a commons?

To have a free culture, I think we need to be able to give and take. Already much has been taken from us. I didn’t realize how much had been taken until I read Free Culture. We need to give so that it can be given back to us.

Tags: books

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 enoch choi // Apr 26, 2004 at 8:54 am

    thanks for the props… i miss scobles linklog/quoteblog. many of my posts came from it, and i always attributed the original source. i like Jay’s style of short quotes, that’s within “fair use” i suppose. It really upsets me about the Africa/AIDS/pharma part, that’s why i read that chapter. very cool book.