Lawrence Lessig appeared at the third edition of the Wizards of OS to
launch Creative Commons Germany. He returned at WOS4
to talk about free culture. As it turns out, Mr. Lessig has
recently moved to Berlin to spend the next year working on his next book,
so there may well be other opportunities for the locals to hear him speak.
For the rest of us, though, it was a rare treat.
He started by talking about the composer John Phillip Sousa, who had
expressed frustration (to a Congressional committee) with the "talking
machines" which were just becoming
common in his time. These machines, he feared, would turn the public into
mere listeners, rather than people who participated in the creation of
music. Many years later, Mr. Lessig notes, this "read-only" approach to
culture has indeed taken over, especially in the U.S.
The talk then shifted to the founding of the U.S. Republican party, which
was based, at that time, on the idea of "free labor." Working for others
was seen as a form of indentured slavery - especially given the kind of
labor contracts which were in use at that time. The idea motivating the
Republicans was a vision of a country where people owned their own means of
production and worked for themselves. Needless to say, things did not work
out that way. Industrialization pushed the economy in a different
direction, and, by the 1870's, 70% of the workers in the U.S. were
employees. Free labor, he says, is a "fantasy" now.
The idea is beginning to come back, however, as the net is enabling more
people to own their own production equipment. We are also seeing similar
trends in politics - the 20th century mode of being told what to think by
politicians on the television is giving way to a blog-driven participatory
democracy. It's becoming a read-write system. And that, Mr. Lessig says, is
how things have been for most of our history; the 20th century was an
aberration in this regard.
Moving back to culture, Lessig noted that the Internet can enable both
read-only and read-write culture. In the read-only mode, the net is a
channel by which we can consume culture created elsewhere. The classic
example here would be iTunes, which allows the purchase of music for
specific devices, to be used in specific ways. The Internet can be a way of
perfecting the control held by content owners.
But it need not be that way.
To demonstrate the read-write alternative, he showed a few videos taken
from the net. These varied from silly works involving reworked anime clips
set to music rather different from that used by the original creators
through to highly political pieces. Something to offend everybody - but
highly amusing. Text, says Lessig, is "the Latin of our time"; video is
the way to communicate in this era. Unfortunately, many of the videos he
showed have been subjected to takedown notices and other attacks from
copyright holders. Lessig also mentioned a film which won a prize at
Cannes; it was made for all of $218, but then the creator was faced with a
$400,000 bill to clear the rights for the background music used.
There are many differences between the read-only and read-write views of
culture, starting with the way that the read-write view departs from the
"couch potato" mode. Read-write culture is a participatory medium. The
read-write culture is also far larger, by almost any measure. It certainly
involves more people, but it can also be economically larger.
Unfortunately, current copyright law heavily favors the read-only mode. It
controls the right to make copies, but, in the digital world, any use of a
work involves copying it. So every use requires permission. Content
holders are making full use of this legal view, which, in the end, means
they have control over how people use culture.
Copyright law, in other words, conflicts with the read-write net. It
Jack Valenti described "piracy" as his own terrorist war. We are, it
seems, fighting a war where the terrorists are our own children. And the
tools which are being deployed in this war, in the name of stopping piracy,
are also killing read-write culture.
So what do we do about all this? The first step, says Lessig, is to enable
free culture in any way we can. And that requires building free tools.
The free software community, for all of its successes, has not yet
succeeded in building a comprehensive set of friendly tools which can be
used by artists. We need to fight DRM in any way we can, support free
codecs and protocols to the greatest extent possible, and support free
We must also build a legal platform for free culture. The Creative Commons
license is aimed at that goal. It seems to be having some success; by one
measure, there are now as many as 140 million CC-licensed works
available on the net.
Finally, Lessig says, we must reach out and support the creation of free
culture on proprietary platforms. In particular, the estimated one million
Flash developers should be brought into the read-write world. That
involves encouraging them to share their code, putting "view source"
buttons on Flash products, etc. By reaching out to these people, we'll
grow the support for free culture, and, ultimately, free platforms. Free
software, he says, was not initially built on free platforms; free culture
will need to take a similar path.
In summary, says Lessig, the 20th century is best described as the
"weirdest century." But it's over. If we can grow the free culture
movement, we will enter truly into the read-write world, and we'll all be
richer for it.
During the question period, Mr. Lessig was asked what he thought of Richard
Stallman's refusal to support the Creative Commons licenses. The day of
that announcement, he responded, was one of the most depressing of his
life. He stands by the Creative Commons licenses, however. The artistic
community still has not really had the discussion of what rights it needs
to be truly free. There is no artistic equivalent to the "four freedoms"
for software. Until that discussion has happened, the Creative Commons can
only defer to the free-culture friendly musicians it is working with
(Gilberto Gil was mentioned) and go with what they suggest. Mr. Lessig
does not feel that he knows better, and will not try to force a particular
vision of freedom on them - even if it means losing Richard Stallman's
The question was asked: don't the Creative Commons licenses constitute an
admission that many of the rights often claimed under fair use do not
actually exist, since those rights must be codified separately in a
license? That can be a problem, he responded, which is why these licenses
have always been written as a grant of additional rights beyond all of
those already permitted by law. In the end, it comes down to a choice of
trying to build this legal platform, or doing nothing at all; they chose to
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