Lessig’s Free Culture

Copyright law needs to change. Not a major change – in fact, it essentially just needs to be reversed to what it was just a few decades ago, a balance between copyright benefits for creators and public domain benefits for a free culture. Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture advocates this balance.

The problem of piracy is a primary issue in the “copyright wars” and Lessig, the enemy of the media giants, actually agrees with them: piracy is wrong and should be curtailed whenever possible. However, when fighting piracy, we (as in the media giants and Congress) should be careful not to damage other aspects of our culture. They did so anyway with the Digitial Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA).

I do not know much about the DMCA personally but I do know one of its key features – the takedown notice – is not a good thing. What the takedown notice policy allows copyright holders to do is if they find their work someplace, like Youtube, they can file a complaint with Youtube and have the video taken down. No questions asked. This then puts the onus on the uploader to file a counter-complaint and then go to court to show they were not violating copyright. This has led to all sorts of problems highlighted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (http://www.eff.org/takedowns). The EFF and Larry Lessig both seem to agree that this is just giving too much power to copyright holders – a holder can just order Youtube to take down any video, no questions asked, with the authority of law behind it. That’s just nonsense.

Copyright law needs to change to support a free culture and not simply allow copyright owners to control so much. What Lessig means by “free culture” is a culture that is allowed to use their predecessors’ work in order to facilitate a new culture. The best example is probably Walt Disney. Many of Disney’s works are not “original” in the sense that some of his most highly regarded works – Snow White, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, etc. – are stories from an (much) older generation. Even so, many of those works are highly original and are quite fantastic and have contributed significantly to our modern culture. If copyright had been perpetual, as some wanted and some currently want, Disney would have been a copyright infringer. If perpetual rights existed and Walt Disney were to upload Snow White to Youtube, he would have to pay whoever owned the Grimm estate (who “pirated” those stories from the surrounding German culture anyway). Does that make any sense? Should anyone today actually hold the copyright for works by the Brothers Grimm or even Shakespeare? This is what Lessig is fighting.

This post/review discusses a limited amount of what Lessig actually covers – there is a lot of information and is definitely worth reading. Lessig’s Free Culture is quite an easy read. In a book where jargon could have taken hold and made reading difficult for anyone not knowledgeable in copyright law (such as me), Lessig instead tells many amusing and saddening historical anecdotes to illustrate his points, which include the ideas that the USA has been a nation of “pirates” for its entire existence, powerful content creators have stifled innovation at every step, and that copyright law should not be as draconian and everlasting as it has been legislated.

Lessig is not an extremist in any way but is instead searching for a middle ground that benefits both copyright owners and the public and culture at large. In fact, Lessig offers a sensible suggestion for copyright law: Copyright should last for a limited amount of years (28 years?) and then, this is the important part, if the copyright is still economically viable and the holder wants to extend that copyright, they can. If they do not wish to continue holding the copyright, that work enters the public domain and is free for anyone to use in their own work. Also every copyrighted work is put in a register so we know who holds what copyrights.

Since writing this book, Lessig has moved on to a much larger goal once he realized that even this sensible policy could not pass: as long as the corporate sector can control Congress, laws favoring their profits and existence will be passed and laws that seek to better our culture will be stifled. Check out Lessig’s podcasts on iTunes if you wish to learn more about copyright law and his current endeavors to end the corporate control of our lawmakers. Or you could watch his two TED talks found here: http://www.ted.com/talks/larry_lessig_says_the_law_is_strangling_creativity.html and  http://www.ted.com/talks/lessig_nyed.html which basically outline his central points.

Also true to the idea of a free culture, Lessig offers his book up as a free download here: http://www.free-culture.cc/freecontent/

http://www.lessig.org/blog/

http://www.ted.com/speakers/larry_lessig.html

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