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Lessig, L. (2005). Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity. Penguin Books. New York. Chapters 9-11

September 25, 2010

I agree with both Mary and Alli about Lessig’s writing style being approachable, concise, and even entertaining to read. It was refreshing to read a book written in a simple and engaging manner by an author who, despite being a law professor at Harvard (and Stanford before that), trained at UPenn, Cambridge, and Yale, does not presume an enormous level of  erudition about his readers. 😉

Now, for a quick summary of Chapters 9, 10, and 11

Chapter 9

Lessig argues that the ability to rediscover what we forget is something that a “free society presumes…” and rightfully so. However, until Brewster Kahle thought of “The Way Back Machine” in 1996, there was no archive for the billions of existing web pages! Founded with philosophy of “universal access to all knowledge”, the Internet Archive, according to Lessig, is “the largest archive of human knowledge in human history.” Check out the Internet Archive here – very cool! Click here to see what the WSU website looked like in 1997!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

Lessig rues the fact that while newspapers and magazines have all been archived for posterity, no one before Kahle thought of preserving the more “ephemeral” productions such as film, TV, and online content for future generations to explore, understand, and study. This oversight, according to Lessig, has veiled and obscured a significant part of American culture from students of media.

However, although technology has now made it possible to archive all books, images, and sound digitally, it has also given rise to new dynamics of production and consumption – something that lawmakers are yet to address correctly or sufficiently. Lessig also notes that all of the archived data in digital spaces is “someone’s property” and that arcane property laws restrict the freedom of access that Kahle and his likes would advocate.

Chapter 10

Lessig argues that what we understand to be the “public domain” is shriveling down at an alarming pace thanks to excessively punitive and unreasonable copyright laws. This in turn has significant potential to threaten our culture. Lessig’s central claim in this chapter was that copyright laws are framed in a way that serves the elites who “would exercise powerful control over how our creative culture would develop.” In fact, Lessig offers a chilling reminder when he talks about concentrated markets and consolidated media empires: “Never in our history have fewer had a legal right to control more of the development of our culture than now.” Truly scary! 😦 😦 😦

At the same time, Lessig contends that physical property rights are (and must always be) different from creative property rights because to make them the same would “weaken the opportunity for new creators to create” because creativity is contingent upon “the owners of creativity having less than perfect control.” This is where he lost me. However, Lessig demonstrates through various examples that copyright laws are either too outdated or too restrictive or excessively punitive, and in all cases, suppress democratic cultural production.

Lessig claims (and rightfully so) that a middle path can be attained between “no protection” and “complete protection” of creative innovation and that we must be wary of legal and political discourse that seeks to polarize the public into these binaries. Applying excessive legal restrictions on creative activity (related to copyrighted material) is bad for society in general and it prevents people from truly taking advantage of the remarkable opportunities that technology affords us. I particularly liked Lessig’s analysis of the shift from “permission to access content” to “controls” inherent in the content that prevent people from violating copyright laws – a very structural and very profound analysis.

Chapter 11

Lessig continues the argument that the real enemy of creative freedom is not copyright laws – it is regulation that does no good. The author uses the classic example of P2P file sharing networks and highlights how both parties fighting the copyright war are equally right and wrong. Lessig considers several solutions to the P2P file sharing problem – make it a zero-tolerance felony across the board or legalize it completely – let it be regulated by social norms instead of ridiculous laws. All said and done, there has to be an organic rethinking of the way creative innovation is regulated in the age of the Internet. There needs to be some parity between the rights of the creator and those of the consumers, with the ultimate aim of fostering an environment where (ethical) creativity is encouraged.

Overall thoughts

Lessig makes a compelling argument for the need for balance when it comes to copyright laws. Thus, while artists must be duly rewarded and compensated for their creative endeavors, the common people must also be able to use the innovations contributed to the world by the artists. Sure, it is illegal to make unauthorized copies of a DVD or download music from the Internet without paying for it, but at the same time, restricting the common people from constructing, transforming, and shaping cultural products in their own way is not good for anyone, except for the elite few at the top of the corporate food chain. Lessig contends (and I agree) that the original creator of any sort of content must enjoy a legal copyright over the content but that should in no way prevent other people from producing new content related to existing (and copyrighted) products.

On the surface, Free Culture seems to be about the interaction between copyright laws and technology and the inability of the former to keep up with the latter. However, to me, Lessig’s arguments make for a telling commentary on the issue of power and how big media corporations seek to monopolize the flow (and use) of information in order to sustain the status quo and of course, to keep raking in the moolah! I know I keep harping upon the “status quo” argument in almost every response I’ve written but it never ceases to amaze me how badly big-money conglomerates want to preserve the order of things and the increasingly clever ways (financial, cultural, and political) in which they seek to do so. All without ever considering how their efforts serve to suppress creativity among the common people.

Ironically, stringent copyright and intellectual property rights are stifling the creativity that they were instituted to protect. It is unfortunate that copyright laws have gone horribly out of control and that the “copyright war” is now really a metaphor for a much more profound cultural clash where the stakes are higher than we can imagine.

And now, for some cool videos:

And here’s the link to another one that I somehow cannot seem to insert into this post:

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