Saturday, February 8, 2014

Lessig's "For the Love of Culture"

Article Report:

Lawrence Lessig, “For the love of culture,” The New Republic (26 Jan. 2010). Source URL:

Topic: Digital technology, the direction of copyright law after Google Books, and what this means for the future of cultural production and access to our cultural heritage. An underlying question or theme is: what’s the purpose of copyright law and what (whose) rights does it balance?

Thesis/summary: Lessig is arguing that in the current era (post-Google Books settlement) the nature of digital technology in conjunction with outmoded copyright law is threatening to “asphyxiate” our access to and creative use of our cultural heritage. He begins by outlining a really bad copyright model based on one that evolved for documentary films, which essentially requires securing licensed permission for “quoting” any of the various elements that make up the film (e.g. music, news footage, televised interviews clips, or other “quotations”). Unlike the copyright model that evolved for print books, the documentary model provides no room for fair use or unencumbered “quoting,” and creates major (often impossible) hurdles (i.e. money and locating rights owners) for those who wish to revive, reprint or digitize works with licenses that have expired.

Lessig argues that every use of digital technology involves making “copies.” Because of this simple fact, copyright law (licensing negotiations, permissions, use restrictions, fees, etc.) could encumber our use of and access to culture to a degree that is unlike anything in the past. Lessig outlines 3 steps toward a solution (a voluntary registry; laws that address preservation and “quotation” problems for works like documentary films; and laws that deal with social consensus about how much free access is a good thing). The goal would be to move us toward a model that balances compensating creators/producers/owners of creative works and allowing liberal fair use, while gradually pushing works into the public domain, with the ultimate aim of having a society that produces a rich culture and provides democratic access to that culture.

Audience /background information: Lessig is writing for a general audience or, what some might call, the educated twenty percent.  In terms of its politics, the magazine TNR that published his piece, straddles neoliberal and neoconservative positions, but I’d guess that Lessig, a Harvard law and ethics professor and an important public intellectual, is more to the left of that limited spectrum and like Robert Reich or Elizabeth Warren, tries to serve as an "angel" speaking into the ear of neoliberal Obama and Clinton Administration types, even as officialdom turns its one good ear to the "devil" perched on its other shoulder, corporate funders. Lessig is an authority on Internet freedom, both as a scholar and as a public advocate of greater openness and democratic access. A quick look at a Wikipedia entry on Lessig will show that he’s been a founder or board member of some of the foremost public interest organizations promoting and defending the Internet’s democratic potential, as well as an opponent of the corporate domination of our political and electoral systems.

Reception: It was difficult for me to find a trail that suggests the article touched off a firestorm of debate. I didn’t find any TNR correspondence (letters to the editor), but I did see repostings and mentions (all positive) on Boingboing by Jessamyn West; an educational news posting on Harvard Law's Website; Brainpickings (“2010 Best Long Reads: Science and Technology”); a University of Iowa Libraries blog; ALAConnect; and Everybody’s Libraries (which shed some additional light on the issue of images and public domain).

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