Culture Wars Remixed

I just finished watching Lawrence Lessig’s fascinating “Getting the Network the World Needs” in which he first summarizes 20th century cultural discourses (i.e., text, photography, film, music, etc) as being essentially either Read Only (RO) or Read Write (RW).  With the exception of photography, Lessig sees the 1900s as largely passive and RO, and thus more or less consistent with the predictions of Sousa and Huxley at the start of the century.

At about 20 minutes, he gets to the heart of his talk: copyright laws.  “Copy-right” laws regulate the right to make copies.  He summarizes these regulations as differentiating between free uses, regulated uses and a thin sliver of fair uses.

For example, reading, giving and selling books are all free uses.  However, today we live in a network economy.  In this world, the use of copyrighted works implicitly requires that we copy those works.  Unlike the 20th century in which culture was passively consumed, in the 21st century culture is actively produced/created.  Thus, 20th century copyright laws + 21st century network platforms have produced a world of unintended consequences (ala Merton?) whereby the (re)production and (re)creation of culture entails de facto the violation of copyright laws.

One result has been a decade long copyright war (about 33 minutes into the video).  It is a war of prohibition waged against filesharing.  It is a war which has not reduced filesharing, but has simply labeled our children as criminals.  He notes that apparently our children do not pay attention to Supreme Court rulings, because its decision to side with the copyright enforcers has in no way deterred filesharing.  His working solution (at about 37 minutes) is a 2X2 matrix which differentiates between professionals vs. amateurs and copies vs. mixes.

Professionals must clearly have copy-rights if they are to have any incentive to create.  However, amateurs should be free to remix these works.  It is the intersection of amateur-copies and professional-remixes that Lessig sees as gray areas (are these Moral Gray Zones ala Anteby?).  In terms of the amateur-copies, what are the limits to how many copies an individual can make?  e.g., Can I share my “favorite” songs with my 10,000 “friends” on Facebook?  Where do we draw the line on copies by amateurs?  In terms of professional-remixes, at what point does an amatuer remix turn commercial?  e.g., If my YouTube mashup goes platinum who should share in the profits?  When does an amateur remix turn professional?

Clearly these are questions of value — and thus squarely within the realm of my research interests.  Indeed, it is the questions raised by these gray areas that intrigue me.  In particular, Lessig asks what does justice look like in a world where free markets meet free culture?  One solution he poses but then immediately criticizes is the Darth Vader approach to fan mashups taken by George Lucas.  In this case, Lucas owns the commercial rights to everything fans have created, even their original works, an approach Lessig equates to digital “sharecropping.”

Ultimately, Lessig concludes that the copyright wars must be stopped, and that we must pursue peace (sue for peace?) — through changes in our copyright laws.  For him, abolishing copyright laws is not the answer.  At the same time, he argues that in the 21st century the existing 20th century system of copyright laws can never work.  Maintaining them will mean either revolution or the end of creation.  Here he draws a parallel between the copyright laws and the Soviet Union.  For Lessig, only by updating our copyright laws can we save another generation of children from being labeled as criminals for simply enacting culture.