Lawrence Lessig's new book, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, is getting quite a bit of attention. We discussed it here yesterday, where you can also hear the entire book for free.
Salon's Farhad Manjoo takes a long look at the Lessig book as well as Siva Vaidhyanathan's new The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash Between Freedom and Control Is Hacking the Real World and Crashing the System (damn, these books have long titles), which tackles similar themes:
- The Mickey-as-Machiavelli theory has been promoted most aggressively by Lawrence Lessig, a constitutional scholar at Stanford Law School. Lessig is a brilliant and eloquent opponent of the entertainment industry's strong hand, and his fight is certainly broader than one cartoon rodent; still, Lessig clearly has Mickey on the brain. In 2002, Lessig led a constitutional challenge to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, the 1998 law Congress passed to extend copyright terms just as Mickey was about to enter the public domain. Lessig called it the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act"; his rallying cry was "Free Mickey!" But in court, Mickey beat Lessig. In a 7-to-2 ruling handed down last year, the Supreme Court let the copyright extensions stand. Mickey would not be freed.
Considering his very public battles with Mickey, you'd expect Lessig to harbor a genuine animus toward the lovable rodent. But what emerges in "Free Culture," Lessig's latest book, is just the opposite: Lessig expresses surprising admiration for Mickey. You might even say that Lessig loves Mickey — or, at least, he loves how Mickey came to be. While Mickey may stand today as a symbol for all that is wrong with American copyright law, Lessig points out that he also serves as a powerful argument for all that was once right with the law. The mouse, who became popular as a parody of — or homage to — Buster Keaton, and whose creator was influenced by just about every icon of his day, is a testament to free culture. But a mouse like him could not come to be in today's restrictive climate, Lessig argues. And, worse, an even better Mickey Mouse — some unimagined, perhaps yet unimaginable creation, inspired by Mickey but so much cooler — is out of the question.
....How can copyright law, a legal mechanism that was meant to foster creativity, stifle art? The reason is that the world's current copyright regime, as Lessig sees it, has lost all sense of balance. Entertainment firms and their defenders think of "intellectual property" as actual, physical property. Disney thinks of Mickey as a real asset, not different, in the legal sense, from a factory. But Mickey Mouse is not a factory — he is art. And giving intellectual property the same legal status as physical property — giving art the same status as a factory — is, Lessig writes, "historically ... absolutely wrong. They have never been the same. And they should never be the same, because, however counterintuitive this may seem, to make them the same would be to fundamentally weaken the opportunity for new creators to create. Creativity depends upon the owners of creativity having less than perfect control."