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?


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