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Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity (2004)

de Lawrence Lessig

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1,482179,536 (4.16)13
Lawrence Lessig, "the most important thinker on intellectual property in the Internet era" (The New Yorker), is often called our leading cultural environmentalist. His focus is the ecosystem of creativity, the environment created around it by technology and law. To read Free Culture is to understand that the health of that ecosystem is in grave peril. While new technologies always lead to new laws, Lessig shows that never before have the big cultural monopolists drummed up such unease about these advances, especially the Internet, to shrink the public domain while using the same advances to control what we can and can't do with the culture all around us. What's at stake is our freedom -- freedom to create, freedom to build, and, ultimately, freedom to imagine.… (mais)
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Given all the hype over this book, including the comments I've heard from several people with whom I'm acquainted to the effect that this book changed people's lives or how they thought about things, it is rather disappointing to finish reading it with the same opinion I had after reading the first chapter:

It's pretty damned mediocre.

Lessig appears to have written this book after he read Peter Drahos' text Information Feudalism, which makes the disappointment even sharper, given that the greatest value of Free Culture seems to be his recounting of examples and observations of the problems of an "intellectual property" restrictive culture gone wildly out of control. That's basically the same thing as roughly half the primary value of Information Feudalism but, even with that earlier book to inspire and guide him, Lessig's treatment of that subject matter falls well short of the bar set by Drahos' book.

My favorite way to define cynic is "an idealist who learns from experience", which I think describes me pretty well. Lessig appears to be an idealist who does not learn from experience, whose biases stand in the way of really examining where he stands and what he thinks in a meaningful manner, and finding new insights. Even his direct explanation of his experience taking a case to the US Supreme Court, and learning important lessons from his failure there, does not really seem to indicate he learned anything worthwhile. He seems to have only learned new ways to make excuses for the naive ideological biases he carries with him about the law, the common platitudes about the relationship between copyright and starving artists, and other inanities. He's a lawyer, of course, and a law professor, and probably cannot continue working in that field as he does now without adhering to those unquestioned biases of his -- but that is not an acceptable excuse for his willful ignorance when he then tries to indoctrinate others with the same notions.

Throughout the book, he spends a great deal of time explaining how our restrictive copyright culture in the US is destroying pretty much all the rest of our culture, and touches on similar problems in other parts of the world in passing. He stresses his desire to take a "middle path" between the "copyright warriors" (those who support locking down our culture as a set of properties controlled by a tiny minority of corporate interests) and the "anarchists" (those who wish to abolish copyright altogether). His entire argument seems to rest on tradition and some hand-wavy notions about how the law is all about "balance". He manages to subtly miscast the state of "copyright" before there was copyright as we would recognize it today, suggesting that before the beginnings of the current copyright regime all the world of culture was somehow owned in perpetuity with no way for anyone to expand upon what came before, which is patently ludicrous nonsense, though I don't think he does this maliciously.

In the process of portraying the controversy over the state of copyright as a war between extremes, both of which are (he claims) horribly wrong, he manages to make the copyright abolitionists look like cackling villains who would reduce all the world to dust, rot, and stagnation, a blasted post-apocalyptic wasteland in the realm of culture, by saying almost nothing about them apart from his strident claims he is not among them. He even goes so far as to say that if the only choice was between the extremes he describes he would choose the route of absolute, perpetual, multinational corporate control of all culture.

In the midst of all this, he utterly fails to make any meaningful argument at all that copyright abolition, or even a less restrictive copyright regime than he proposes, would cause any actual harm at all. He states that great harm would be caused, several times, especially when he makes sudden (and strangely inappropriate) apologies for having the temerity to oppose corporate market domination even a little, but the statements come with precisely zero supporting argument. In fact, by implication, many of his examples of how to improve things by reducing the autocratic control of culture would serve exceedingly well to strongly support copyright abolition.

You may believe you have strong arguments supporting his view, or even the view of the corporate monopolists, and that's fine. If you do, you should share them. If you believe that Lessig arrives at the correct conclusions, you should support his causes. None of that, however, should blind you to the fact that his efforts to make his case are woefully inadequate in at least some areas, to the fact that his ability to construct a coherent justification is terribly deficient and in some ways even counterproductive, or to the fact that he is a naively biased ideologue with the apparent rationality of a typical Jerry Springer guest, if this book is the sole indication of such characteristics.

If copyright abolition is zero on the scale of positions in this controversial area, Lessig's position is three, and absolute, perpetual, universal corporate monopoly is five, I could construct a stronger argument for any position between zero and five -- including Lessig's own position -- in terms of underlying justifications, consistency, coherence, and logical validity, in probably about three thousand words, than Lessig did in more than three hundred pages.

Don't make the mistake I made, if you must read Free Culture: don't pay for this book or get someone else to buy it for you as a birthday or Christmas gift. Download it for free. It is available under a Creative Commons license for free download and distribution. That way you don't waste paper, money, or space on a book that may generously be described as barely rising to the level of mediocrity.

note: I find it ironic, having read this book, that Lessig expresses awareness of the burdens of intricate, finicky, and often unpredictable copyright law as one of the biggest problems facing creative people today, then goes on to (co-)author and champion a bunch of licenses (the Creative Commons licenses) that -- apart from the CC0 license -- impose significant legal compliance burdens on licensees. Even the CC-BY (attribution) license, supposedly requiring nothing more than giving attribution to the copyright holder when modifying, deriving from, displaying/performing, and/or distributing a work, contains complex legalities that create shadowy little nooks and crannies that can trip up a licensee as well as a plague of license incompatibilities, and even contains some little-known restrictions that are not represented in the "human readable summary" of the license propagated by the Creative Commons organization (such as the technology restriction clause). Lessig manages to contradict himself or undermine his own arguments at every turn, and often develops supposed solutions that create many of the same problems he purports to solve. ( )
  apotheon | Dec 14, 2020 |
I was hesitant at first to read this book because it was published more than a decade ago (in 2004). Some of the age shows; Lessig spends a paragraph explaining the new fangled conception of a "blog" and remarks with surprise that the Japanese are streaming mp3s through their cell phones. I'm glad I pushed through and finished the book, it was worth all the dated references. I learned a lot about intellectual property, and came across arguments that are original and relevant even 12 years later.

I enjoyed in particular the "legal" aspects of the work. I had never heard of Causby vs. US before. Lessig uses this as an example of how property rights have always been balanced against the greater good of society. In Causby, under common law, one's property included the sky above one's land. This was seriously challenged with the invention of the airplane. The Causby's sued the government for flying over their land, arguing that their property rights were violated. The supreme court dismissed the Causbys, arguing that it simply defied common sense. I also found Lessig's description of the Statue of Anne and the birth of public domain interesting. For the first time, parliament limited copyright (instead of perpetual copyright under common law) in order to avoid the power of the publishing monopolies and encourage the growth of knowledge. Lastly, it was interesting to get the personal perspective of Lessig in the case he argued in front of the Supreme court (Eldred). Lessig's legal theory, that the extension of copyright to existing works was a violation of the progress clause was fascinating (as well as the rent seeking susceptibility of copyright extension). Ultimately, Lessig failed, and he reflects on the reasons for that failure (mainly failing to make a policy argument and an over reliance on constitutional principle).

Law professors (at least in my mind) have a reputation for being a bit radical and off the rocker. I was surprised to find Lessig's proposals and ideas moderate. He doesn't call for the abolition of property rights or property fundamentalism. What he calls for is a rebalancing of property, and he demonstrates that it has been in our tradition to balance property with the betterment of society. He discusses compulsory licenses, and the congressional decision to require radio to pay composers not recording artists royalties as attempts in our tradition to balance the rights of ownership against the good of broader society. Unlike most politics that are black and white, Lessig puts forth arguments that argue for the protection of property (he is against music pirating for example) while making sure that the owners do not overreach and choke off transformative content or distribution (he discusses various examples of aggressive RIAA lawsuits). He suggests shorting copyright terms, banning copyright extensions, requiring registration and markings for copyrighted material (he also explains why the last two have been dropped as copyright requirements).

The last main idea I really liked in the book was the discussion of types of regulation over culture. Lessig lists four, architecture, law, norms and markets. He discusses how free culture (in the sense of free markets, not free beer) is threatened by the convergence of concentrated media, excessive DRM technology, and the ever increasing scope of copyright law. Though copyrighted material in theory can be used in other works through fair use, Lessig argues that fair use is now facing a burden it was not designed to bear. Technology, big media and the over protecting legal system have created an environment unfriendly to creativity and innovation. DRM and a myriad of laws now allow copyright owners to regulate and require permission for activities that would have never been so regulated before.

I don't agree with Lessig on every issue, but I respect how original and reasonable his positions are. I'm also impressed that his arguments are still enough to make someone think a decade later. I recommend it for anyone who has a beginner's interest in intellectual property rights, technology and the law and even economics.
( )
  vhl219 | Jun 1, 2019 |
Phenomenal! Today we imagine law as an esoteric subject where money has conquered reason. That's only partly true. [a:Lawrence Lessig|25159|Lawrence Lessig|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1280016402p2/25159.jpg] describes what he calls a "land grab" on the territory opened up by new technologies. Framed in this way, digital and copy rights are more an emergent and confused battlefield. The danger is not in losing the fight, the danger is in losing the awareness that there is a fight, its scope, its historical context, and it's relevance to our daily lives. ( )
  Victor_A_Davis | Sep 18, 2015 |
I love authors who provide their stuff under the Creative Commons License. It gives me warm fuzzies inside.
  lafon | Mar 31, 2013 |
The beginning of this book stretches on a little and suffers for Lessig trying to head of objects and arguments that someone who disagrees with him might make against what he's writing. He does though by saying things without wanting to commit to making statements about harms or if something is right or wrong. It makes some of his arguments come off wish-washy a bit and makes the book feels muddled.

Towards the end he states that he lost a major case because he tried to argue to hard for legal and rational points and suppressing some of the passion of his work, but he seems to be making the same mistake again.

Not a bad book, but certainly could have either been compressed and a bit more academic or...shorter and more passionate. There's later books by other authors that argue some of the same points but better. I'd recommend Common As Air by Hyde for more of a general audience interested in the history of copyright and this book for more of a serious buff on copyright issues.

I do wish I knew of a book that examined the tragedy of the orphan works. Lessig makes a good rational argument for the vastness of knowledge affected by it, but it would be nice to see a book that focused on it. ( )
  JonathanGorman | Jul 24, 2011 |
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On December 17, 1903, on a windy North Carolina beach for just shy of one hundred seconds, the Wright brothers demonstrated that a heavier-than-air, self-propelled vehicle could fly.
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Lawrence Lessig, "the most important thinker on intellectual property in the Internet era" (The New Yorker), is often called our leading cultural environmentalist. His focus is the ecosystem of creativity, the environment created around it by technology and law. To read Free Culture is to understand that the health of that ecosystem is in grave peril. While new technologies always lead to new laws, Lessig shows that never before have the big cultural monopolists drummed up such unease about these advances, especially the Internet, to shrink the public domain while using the same advances to control what we can and can't do with the culture all around us. What's at stake is our freedom -- freedom to create, freedom to build, and, ultimately, freedom to imagine.

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