Lunar New Year “Read” #35: Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Creativity, by Lawrence Lessig

As I’ve mentioned in recent posts , I’ve been listening to the free & legal mp3 set that makes up the audiobook distribution of Lawrence Lessig’s very important book Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Creativity.

Now, I know some people will have trouble counting it as a “book”, or my interaction with it as “reading”, since it’s an audiobook. However, I want to note a couple of things:

  • As an unabridged audiobook, it took me longer to get through all the audio than it would to get through a printed book. Listening to a book on tape is not actually “easier” than reading it, especially not a book on copyright law — no matter how interestingly it is made by a good writing style like Professor Lessig’s.
  • I actually have also scanned through the PDF version of the book, which is where I got the link via which I intend to purchase the book, once I get myself a credit card. The PDF, also freely and legally distributed, contains the images and charts which could not be conveyed by amateur readers.
  • Importantly, I think, in terms of Lessig’s argument, I was experiencing a derivative work of his book, one that he had legally released into the Creative Commons — and I wanted to experience it in that way, and listening to it beat reading it on a computer screen. So in a sense, listening to the book was also a way of testing the book’s premise about the value of Free Culture and of the allowance of derivative work, “piracy”, and so forth. Unsurprisingly, I do wish to purchase other of Lessig’s work, and perhaps even this book, sometime.

In any case, I am surprised to find myself completely fascinated with the American copyright situation, as it is, to me, just one more example of how Big Businesses are destroying whatever is left of culture.

I have to say that I am skeptical about the kind of “creativity” that Lessig feels is exemplified by Disney; for my own part, I find that the majority of derivative work is usually not worth the paper it’s printed on. For every Shakespeare (whom we all must admit wrote derivative works) there are a thousand furry-fanfic authors; for every Picasso (whom we must agree pirated bits of African art into his work, at times) there are hundreds upon hundreds of crap-cartoonists; for every Billie Holiday (who sang the songs of hundreds of other artists, but composed very little herself), there are a thousand talentless garage bands hacking their way through someone else’s songs.

It seems to me that Western culture has become a rip/mix/burn culture mainly because technology allows it very easily. In the past, people did do the analogue-tech version of “ripping” and “mixing” and “burning”; it was called studying, imitating, and performing or publishing. One still had to master something, however. Thelonioud Monk had to master musical theory and the pianoforte (and for that matter ear training and bandleading) before he could transform “Just a Gigolo” into something that was legitimately a “derivative” work, a “version” of the song, rather than just a paltry rendition of someone else’s tune. Shakespeare’s work is definitely derivative, but it is certainly not “merely” derivative; far from it, Shakespeare is one of the great examples of how great genius can take cultural dross and transform it to golden art. But this is a far cry from sampling bits and pieces of Marvin Gaye and Sly and the Family Stone and slapping them together; or, further, ripping bits of Björk in Apple’s GarageBand application and making some so-called remix with a different canned drumbeat. Now, if we are honestly to proceed, we need to come to grips with that fact: the vast and overwhelming majority of all “derivative work” is dross, not art.

But Lessig is not arguing from the point of view of art appreciation: he is not defending art, but culture. It is because of this distinction that he is correct, and that I must overlook my art-elitist misgivings and give him fair hearing. For what Lessig is concerned with are the following things:

  • the ways in which the “creative commons” are now swamped with inefficient copyright laws and practices, stifling peoples’ freedom to work with creative works
  • the free-speech implications of hypercontrolling copyright law combined with a media controlled by only a few large corporations
  • the irony that the very creators who began with piracy are now the most vehement (and powerful) copyright advocates on the planet
  • the ways in which popular piracy is being overblown and used as an excuse to crackdown on all copyright violations, including those that reasonably fall under fair use
  • the ways in which technologies are becoming involved in the enforcement of claims to copyright protection, and how (the American) Congress is protecting these technologies despite the fact that they are obviously transitional
  • the impact upon peoples’ empowerment and media literacy in a world both saturated by advertising and media
  • the fact that all of this represents a perversion of the original use of copyright, and that the result has been the abandonment of the notion of public domain, which is an irreperable loss to humanity and human knowledge
  • the fact that many kinds of media from earlier in the 20th century, devoid of any commercial life, cannot pass into the public domain and therefore will not be digitized and, as it degrades physically, will be lost to all memory and human knowledge
  • his outrage at the fact that the Supreme Court, when it heard a case he was arguing on the subject, simply ignored his argument about why copyright law continually extended by Congress is a perversion and a wrong
  • his vision of what we can do as a culture to rebuild the public domain and remind people how important it is to have a functioning public domain

As you may or may not imagine, this was a fascinating listen, though it took many, many hours. Still, I think for any creative person living in our time, it’s well worth the read; for anyone who enjoys creative works, too, it is a worthwhile investment, whether you invest your money or just you time into it.

Since the distribution of the Audiobook is completely legal, I’m now hosting it. You can start a Bittorrent download by clicking on this link for the magnet URI (it should work in Azureus, for example). But I want to support Lessig, so I will be picking up a copy of the book, or at least some of his books, as soon as I get a fair chance. You should, too. Of all the people out there, this guy is fighting for your culture, for you to have a free culture. If you want to know why, and how, read the book. And more important, if you don’t care, then read the book. Trust me, after you do, you will care.

2 thoughts on “Lunar New Year “Read” #35: Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Creativity, by Lawrence Lessig

  1. This book sounds interesting. About your comment that there’s a lot of talentless writing out there, I also think that being traditionally published or not doesn’t necessarily say anything about the quality of the writing, cartoon, film, etc. There’s a lot of crap “legitimately” out there and a lot of good stuff that doesn’t get any recognition.

  2. I think part of the reason for that, RealMomTalk, is because the traditional media distribution methods are bounded by space (one can only fit so many books or CDs in one outlet) and therefore tend to concentrate on more sure-win products. Thus the already published find it easier and easier to publish, and the unpublished find it harder to get an audience for their first novels. Reviewers and fansites and such mitigate this, but only a little. But I bet you the internet will soon change all of that.

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