- Lawrence Lessig could be called a cultural environmentalist. One of America’s most original and influential public intellectuals, his focus is the social dimension of creativity: how creative work builds on the past and how society encourages or inhibits that building with laws and technologies. In his two previous books, CODE and THE FUTURE OF IDEAS, Lessig concentrated on the destruction of much of the original promise of the Internet. Now, in FREE CULTURE, he widens his focus to consider the diminishment of the larger public domain of ideas. In this powerful wake-up call he shows how short-sighted interests blind to the long-term damage they’re inflicting are poisoning the ecosystem that fosters innovation.
All creative works – books, movies, records, software, and so on – are a compromise between what can be imagined and what is possible – technologically and legally. For more than two hundred years, laws in America have sought a balance between rewarding creativity and allowing the borrowing from which new creativity springs. The original term of copyright set by the Constitution in 1787 was seventeen years. Now it is closer to two hundred. Thomas Jefferson considered protecting the public against overly long monopolies on creative works an essential government role. What did he know that we’ve forgotten?
Lawrence Lessig shows us that while new technologies always lead to new laws, never before have the big cultural monopolists used the fear created by new technologies, specifically the Internet, to shrink the public domain of ideas, even as the same corporations use the same technologies to control more and more what we can and can’t do with culture. As more and more culture becomes digitized, more and more becomes controllable, even as laws are being toughened at the behest of the big media groups. What’s at stake is our freedom – freedom to create, freedom to build, and ultimately, freedom to imagine.
The NY Times says this:
- In 1998, big media won a major victory with the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which added 20 more years to copyrights, the 11th extension in the last 40 years. And large-scale copyright holders have been threatening to sue users who even come close — and in some cases, not very close — to infringing on a copyright.
For every file-sharer downloading an illegal song, there are students worried about being hauled into court for photocopying a few pages of a school book and grade schools and restaurants wary of letting ”Happy Birthday to You” be sung. Even technological advances, supposed to have been copyright’s undoing, are proving a two-edged sword. It has long been established, for example, that when consumers buy books, they own not just the right to read them but to share them. But the same books in digital form are outfitted with technological locks that prevent sharing — even books long out of copyright, like ”Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
The shrinking of the public domain, and the devastation it threatens to the culture, are the subject of a powerfully argued and important analysis by Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford Law School and a leading member of a group of theorists and grass-roots activists, sometimes called the ”copyleft,” who have been crusading against the increasing expansion of copyright protections. Lessig was the chief lawyer in a noble, but ultimately unsuccessful, Supreme Court challenge to the copyright extension act. ”Free Culture” is partly a final appeal to the court of public opinion and partly a call to arms.
It is also surprisingly entertaining. Lessig writes for the interested layman, carefully explaining copyright’s often opaque terminology and doctrines. And he draws on a rich array of literary and pop-culture references, from ”The Country of the Blind,” a thought-provoking H. G. Wells short story, to Japanese comics. For the silliness to which copyright battles frequently descend, it is hard to improve on Lessig’s story of the Marx brothers telling Warner Brothers, after it threatened to sue if they did a parody of ”Casablanca,” to watch out because the Marx brothers ”were brothers long before you were.”
….Lessig grounds his argument about the new rules’ impact on the culture in a basic observation about art: as long as it has existed, artists have been refashioning old works into new ones. Greek and Roman myths were developed over centuries of retelling. Shakespeare’s plays are brilliant reworkings of other playwrights’ and historians’ stories. Even Disney owes its classic cartoon archive — Snow White, Cinderella, Pinocchio — to its plundering of other creators’ tales. And today, technology allows for the creation of ever more elaborate ”derivative works,” art that builds on previous art, from hip-hop songs that insert, or sample, older songs to video art that adds new characters to, or otherwise alters, classic films.
Historically, copyright law has struck a balance between giving creators enough incentive to create — and enough money to live on — and freeing up their works for future generations. America’s first copyright statute, passed in 1790, granted copyrights for 14 years. The average copyright now lasts 95 years, and copyrights need no longer be renewed to survive. Copyrights originally applied only to the work created; now they cover all manner of derivative works too.
The result of this explosion of copyright, Lessig argues persuasively, is an impoverishment of the culture.
….Lessig offers up an array of eminently sensible approaches to reviving the public domain. He argues for shorter copyright terms, and for a more robust interpretation of fair use of relatively minor amounts of a copyrighted work. And he calls for extending compulsory licenses, the system that allows radio stations to play whatever copyrighted music they want so long as they pay a legally set royalty.
Or you can just click below to hear the book or portions thereof. “Free Culture” popup audiobook