Lessig and Copyright

It was a pleasure to start reading this book. I thought it was well-written and very easy to read. The ideas expressed it in resonated within me. But the more I read the more jaded I became. Lessig’s ideas seemed to be repetitive and also not clear. He seemed to be advocating something that he found fascinating but had not quite managed to grasp. His thoughts became problematic and I honestly could not understand where he thought boundaries between piracy and sharing should be drawn. Based on these feelings and analysis, my questions are:

  1. Lessig says that he is against piracy but supports sharing. He claims that amateurs should be encouraged to fiddle with original work and create their own versions of it. He advocates creativity and fair use of original work. The basis for this seems to be economics. As long as the person altering the work isn’t making a profit then it is fair use. This then becomes problematic. Lessig also in the same book seems to be praising Google and other big media conglomerates for being able to use free use to their advantage. So then how is that different from piracy? If sharing entails a community and being able to access creativity for free and the greater good. Then how when it is abused by a media conglomerate is it still okay? With this argument, then video piracy is also advantageous to the original media workers as it promotes their songs/movies possibly to places that would have otherwise never had access to it. So it is a win-win. If big companies such as Google, Facebook et all can do it why can’t a pirate?
  2. If Lessig’s argument is that it is okay for Google to do it because they came up with the innovations through which to make people volunteering information be profitable. Then would it not also be okay to praise the innovations of p2p file sharing? If p2p was able to come up with a way where a little information shared under fair use could be complied by a machine to create the whole, then how can you persecute each person for being willing to share that little bit. If a bunch of my friends gave me a piece of the puzzle and I created the whole.. would that make me a pirate?
  3. Also if the point of sharing is just for inspiration and creativity. Then wouldn’t RO culture also permit that? If a person watched a Madonna vidoe and was inspired by her to create similar music is that not creativity? Why is there a need to be able to take her music and chop it up and claim it as their own? Or is RW technology best for the purposes of satire, humor and fandom? Or then alternately if someone made a mash-up and profited from that is that wrong?

Lessig seems to promote free culture but at the same time complicates it. He does not draw lines but rather seems to be saying it is a continuous process. If that is the case then a criminal today may not be one tomorrow. I do hope we can get more into the nuances of why big media companies using free software, information, videos by fans is  considered technical innovation but the use of it by others is considered piracy. Should it then be that any venture that makes a profit should pay? Would that be a better solution. Use if but if you make money then share the wealth too.

Lessig discussion questions for 12/3

1.) I read a majority of this book when I was visiting my parents, in the Twin Cities, over the holiday weekend. Naturally, about half way through my stay, my dad (a man of science, who thinks in terms of patents) popped the question: “What’s that book you’re reading?” Pressed to deliver a tidy summation, I explained that the book was largely a contemporary criticism and call for reformation of copyright law. He asked me to elaborate. As I tried, I found difficulties in our conversation; difficulties hinging on the distinctions between what we think of as “piracy” and remix (or, more broadly, RW) culture (a culture my dad knows very little about). It became clear to me that Lessig never really explicitly draws this line in the sand. We know he is anti-piracy (at least in terms of illegal downloading): e.g. “I stand by my position in Free Culture that “piracy” is wrong – a position I repeat nine times in that book” (113). And we know he is convincingly pro remix (and subsequently RW culture, and democratic creativity): e.g. “Why should it be effectively impossible for an artist from Harlem practicing the form of art of the age [remix] to commercialize his creativity… The answer is: for no good reason, save inertia and the forces that like the world frozen as it is” (105). However, we are left to grapple as to where precisely piracy ends and remix (meaningfully) begins. As I realized in my discussion with my dad, people who have different experiences, cultural/moral understandings, and values associated with remix are bound to draw different conclusions on these ends. Thus, I pose a couple questions: How and where do we draw the line between piracy and remix (if the former is to be criminalized, and the latter to be taught and encouraged)? Put differently, precisely when is it (and is it not) okay to use other people’s creative work without permission? And who should be left with the decision if we can’t collectively, intuitively, and sensibly make up our minds?

2.) In the fourth chapter of the book, Lessig describes the potential for a contemporary revival of RW culture. In doing so, he focuses primarily on two types of remix literacy: (1) text (e.g. writing) and (2) media (e.g. pictures, music, and videos – or what people in industry call “rich-media”). In this discussion, he draws on a number of interesting points – most revolving around the relation between these two forms of creation. He describes how, in writing, it is standard practice to borrow and quote from others, so long as we cite/attribute the original – and this is commonly accepted, without permission. However, in the other media forms described above, this is not the case. I feel this is a compelling point, and one I had not previously considered. This portion of the book urges us to ask a complicated question (on page 54): Why does writing have so many more freedoms than other creative properties? In general, Lessig seems to argue that this is largely due to our conception of writing as the ultimate (or at least most culturally engrained) form of democratic creativity – as it is a form that virtually anyone has access to. His argument, then, shifts towards the increasing access digital technologies offer ordinary people to “write” (for an audience) with images, music, and videos – and how the law has failed in granting this new level of access the freedoms it deserves. Thus, I pose a few more questions to build on Lessig’s: Why do you suppose we hold creative forms of text and “rich-media” to different legal standards? Why do we culturally view these practices on such different planes? What economical, political, cultural, and/or social forces influence our perspective here? And finally, does it seem realistic that some day we will treat and perceive “rich-media” as we do text, on a similarly democratic plane?

Lessig: hybrid economies and more

What gave this book a unique perspective, I think, is that Lessig has a legal background and professes law. Not only did he provide a lot of useful insight on the behaviors (and rates) of corporate lawyers, he also made what I consider to be esoteric legal matters approachable for the  layman. One of the biggest concepts I took away from the book was that copyright not only can but should be interpreted in different ways. His calls for reform and the little chart on p. 254 made sense, particularly when it came to Lessig’s claim that amateur remix should be entirely fair game, etc. Some other notions I found to be either a little problematic or strange though:

The middle of the book reads like a celebration of star internet sites; that’s all fine, but I was curious about his description of the hybrid economy, which will either supplant the traditional commercial and sharing sorts or run alongside them. These are the wave of the future, but what will they yield? Indeed, some seem worse than others, and I’m thinking here of the Microsoft example. The first couple were fine (craigslist, Flickr), but the collaboration space Microsoft is cultivating seemed really, and unashamedly, exploitative (200). Did anyone else get that impression? 

The ending about why kids suffer and why the wealthy corporations/campaign donors win out seemed shoehorned in. This could have been, and should be, another book on its own. But anyway, Lessig seems to be critical of both the law as it stands today, and also what’s happening to society vis-a-vis the youth’s proclivity to download illegal music. We perceive the kids as criminals, and they apparently internalize that. Which do you think Lessig takes issue with more? The law or the culture? And do you think his position is sensible?

Another thing that might be useful: how could you compare and contrast Lessig and Jenkins? I know that each quoted the other in their respective works, and Lessig even invoked Jenkins’ classic convergence culture tropes: Star Wars and the Lawver/Warner “Potter War.” I can think of some differences: Lessig doesn’t seem to be as much of an industry consultant/insider who mediates and negotiates between the fans and the media giants. His concern is more for the superfluous attributes of copyright law. Lessig is more actively appealing to the government for change. Both are predicting the future a little bit and remain unsure of how new developments will pan out: Lessig with hybrid economies and Jenkins with convergence.