Lawrence Lessig: Decriminalizing the Remix

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"Even the good become pirates in a world where the rules seem absurd," Lessig writes.

Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy
By Lawrence Lessig
The Penguin Press; 352 pp.

The Gist:
In his latest book, the Stanford professor and Wired columnist rails against the nation's copyright laws — regulations he believes are futile, costly and culturally stifling. Citing "hybrid" economies like YouTube and Wikipedia (both of which rely on user-generated "remixes" of information, images and sound), Lessig argues in favor of what he calls a "Read/Write (RW)" culture — as opposed to "Read/Only (RO)" — that allows consumers to "create art as readily as they consume it."

Highlight Reel:

1. On the historical basis for creating a Read/Write culture: Lessig resurrects the testimony of American composer John Phillip Sousa, who went before Congress in 1906 to discuss copyright reform: "When I was a boy ... in front of every house in the summer evenings you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal chord left.'" As Lessig explains, "Sousa was not offering a prediction about the evolution of the human voice box. He was describing how a technology ... would change our relationship to culture. These 'machines,' Sousa feared, would lead us away from ... 'amateur' culture. We would become just consumers of culture, not also producers." For his part, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, "was keen that the Web be an RW medium," even though he would eventually capture only a tiny fraction of the money that his invention would create.

2. On current copyright law: As Lessig explains, today's copyright laws regulate reproductions or "copies." But in a digital context, every time you listen to a song or play a video, that content is "copied" from a server somewhere to the hard drive in your computer. The same is not true when you crack open a book: "For most of American history it was extraordinarily rare for ordinary citizens to trigger copyright law ... RO culture in the digital age is thus open to control in a way that was never possible in the analog age ... For the first time, [copyright law] reaches beyond the professional to control the amateur." And when it comes to prosecuting copyright infringement, Lessig doesn't spare members of his profession: "The threat of litigation is huge, so the payoff to make litigants go away is also huge. The system loves the game; the game therefore never ends."

3. On the birth of the "Copyright Wars": According to Lessig, the war began during the fall of 1995, when members of the "content industry" (read: media giants) began to grasp the implications of digital technology on copyright enforcement. (An analog tape was difficult to copy and disseminate. An MP3 file, on the other hand, just required the click of a mouse). "What before was both impossible and illegal is now just illegal," Lessig explains. In September of that year, movie studios and record labels met with the Commerce Department to map out a new legal strategy. The wildly popular and ill-fated music-sharing giant Napster became the war's first casualty. But it didn't stop there. "Then they targeted ordinary citizens, charging them with downloading music or enabling others to do the same ... as of June 2006, the RIAA had sued 17,587 people, including a twelve-year-old girl and a dead grandmother."

4. On technology as the solution, not the problem: Though media companies and the government have relied on lawyers to fight digital piracy, Lessig highlights the much more logical approach of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who chose to forgo such legal weapons in favor of a "fight-fire-with-fire" approach — Digital Rights Management, or DRM. This code limited the redistribution of iTunes songs, thus reassuring record companies that the online music store wouldn't be a total rip-off. "DRM was thus a speed bump: it slowed illegal use just enough to get the labels to buy in." But Lessig also notes the dangers of DRM. "At its most extreme, digital rights management technologies could control how often you listen to a song you've downloaded, where that song gets stored, whether you can share that song with someone else, and how long you have the right to listen. The technology could enable almost any form of control the copyright owner could imagine."

5. On the remix as an art form: Likening this new form of digital creativity to a chef using store-bought ingredients, Lessige writes, "the remix artist does the same thing with bits of culture found in his digital cupboard." To him, such artistic expression represents an entirely new way to process and absorb information. Recalling storytime with his oldest son, Lessig writes, "The moment he first objected to a particular shift in the plot, and offered his own, was one of the coolest moments of my life. ... I want to see this expressed in every form of cultural meaning ... I want him to be the sort of person who can create by remaking ... I want to put a spotlight on the stuff no one wants to kill — the most interesting, the very best of what these new technologies make possible. If the war simply ended tomorrow, what forms of creativity could we expect? What good could we realize, and encourage, and learn from?" That doesn't mean, however, that the original composer should not be protected: "Neither RW (Read/Write) nor RO (Read Only) culture can truly flourish without copyright." But he also recognizes that not all cultural goods are created equal. Just as apples shouldn't be compared to oranges, software code shouldn't be likened to movies or music to scientific articles. Each, he argues, will require its own set of rules.

The Lowdown:
Fittingly enough, Lessig's book is a literary remix of sorts. Once dubbed a "philosopher king of Internet law," he writes with a unique mix of legal expertise, historic facts and cultural curiosity, citing everything from turn-of-the-century Congressional testimony to Wikipedia to contemporary best-sellers like Chris Anderson's The Long Tail. The result is a wealth of interesting examples and theories on how and why digital technology and copyright law can promote professional and amateur art. As he sees it, reforming copyright law is the only way to salvage it: "We, as a society, can't kill this new form of creativity. We can only criminalize it. We can't stop our kids from using the technologies we give them to remix the culture around them. We can only drive that remix underground."

The Verdict: Read