Monday, January 19, 2009

Book Report:
Remix by Lawrence Lessig

Law professor Lawrence Lessig has made a career teaching and writing about copyright law. He founded the Creative Commons as well as the Center For Internet and Society at Stanford, where he taught until recently accepting a position at Harvard. His work has largely centered around the weaknesses of copyright law - how it has diverged in practice from its original intention and hindered artistic advancements. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy is his fourth and final book on the subject matter, and makes perhaps Lessig's most accessible arguments on the future of copyright law.

A title like Remix calls to mind Girl Talk's Feed the Animals and Danger Mouse's The Grey Album and while Lessig does bring these works into his argument, his discussion of a "remix culture" extends far beyond music. This culture extends to anime music videos, Harry Potter fan sites, and amateur YouTube videos of babies dancing to Prince. The latter anecdote begins the framework of Lessig's argument, discussing the case of Stephanie Lenz whose YouTube video of her eighteen month old son dancing to Prince was pulled from the video site upon Universal Music Group's threats of legal action. "For the first time," Lessig writes:
the law regulates ordinary citizens generally. For the first, it reaches beyond the professional to control the amateur - to subject the amateur to to a control by the law that the historically reserved to professionals.
Lessig writes of how the technology - from software to YouTube and Flickr - has enabled us to become a Read/Write culture, as opposed to strictly a Read Only. That is to say that the way we engage with media has changed. Much like how for decades we have quoted the words of authors to frame our own arguments, we are now creating a similar argument and dialogue with film and music. This development in culture has largely been met with resistance from the content industry, often in the form of lawsuits directed at everyday people.

The strength of Lessig's arguments is that he often brings in simple common sense while actually showing how such action has been detrimental to the content industry, namely the war against p2p file sharers which has not achieved either intended goal of decreasing the number of file sharers or returning profits to the industry. Instead, it has simply labeled a generation of young people as criminals. Lessig's strongest case is not that we should simply allow this to go on, but how embracing the remix culture is actually beneficial. Remix's second section focuses on internet economies, first highlighting commercial economies ("an economy in which money or 'price' is the central term of the ordinary, or normal, exchange.") and sharing economies (communities such as Wikipedia, where the contributions not "motivated by money, but by the fun or joy of what they do."), before arriving at a hybrid of the two.

"[B]etween these two economies," Lessig writes, "there is an increasingly important third economy.... the hybrid:
The hybrid is either a commercial entity that aims to leverage value from a sharing economy, or it is a sharing economy, or it is a sharing economy that builds a commercial entity o better support its sharing aims.
Flickr, Craig's List and YouTube are a few examples of such a hybrid - companies that profit financially, but not without the help of free contributions for their community of users. Societies need all economies to survive, Lessig argues, but the hybrid economy allows companies to embrace the remix culture in a fashion that is still profitable. Working with a community of fans is ultimately more beneficial and profitable than threatening them with lawsuits. Lessig notes that the hybrid economy is not perfect - done improperly, a community can come to feel distrustful of the company profiting off of their hard work. At the same time, if the community is providing for them a service they find joy in, that can be just as much an incentive as a financial one.

Lessig does not profess to have all the answers but he outlines an exciting path to follow relevant to the media culture we live in. He makes frequent allusion to the efforts of the Creative Commons, while also acknowledging that that organization is simply a first step. Most refreshing about Lessig's arguments are that they provide a simple explanation for how this remix culture can thrive both for users and businesses. He does not call for an all-out end to copyright law, and instead asks us to rethink our thoughts on copyright law. We need to decriminalize file sharing so as not to label an entire generation pirates. We need to not target the amateur who is creating remixes for zero financial incentives. The content industry needs to work with their community of users, rather than fighting them. If so, Lessig argues, creativity will flourish and so will the content industry.

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