Author: Lawrence Lessig
Year of Publication: 2008
LC Call Number: KF3020 .L47
Sorry for the hiatus. I’m a slow writer and my life has been… not bad but just busy lately.
Lawrence Lessig is a well-known advocate for copyright reform; he’s most famous for founding Creative Commons and arguing against the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension before the Supreme Court in 1998. Although he’s a law professor, his books are addressed mostly not to his learned colleagues but to the general public, whom he wishes to inform and persuade. I’d read Free Culture in the past but didn’t get around to reading Remix until now. I’ve been interested in copyright for some time, both as a librarian and as a person who lives and consumes culture in the twenty-first century. In general, I like Lessig a lot, but I’m starting to think that my level of sophistication has passed the point at which this sort of analysis is really helpful to me and I need to be reading, I don’t know, Kevin Smith or somebody.
In any case, this book doesn’t focus on copyright as strongly as Free Culture did. Instead, Lessig puts together an argument about the nature of cultural transmission. The bulk of the book focuses on the distinction Lessig draws between what he calls Read-Only (RO) and Read-Write (RW) culture. This vocabulary is drawn from computer science and describes the permissions that an individual may have with regard to a file; RW means you can make changes to it and RO means you can’t. To Lessig, this same distinction holds for culture. Folk culture has always been around, but the emergence of mass culture had in some ways pushed it into the background throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century. The reasons for this are both economic and cultural; new forms of culture are often expensive to produce, and we have come to think that culture is about enjoying the quality of work done by those who are good at it, placing less emphasis on the creative and participatory aspects of culture. However, he argues that technology has brought about a new kind of RW culture, because we are now able to produce, say, movies and music, more easily and cheaply than formerly, and because we’re able to share them easily and use them to form communities. This argument was very familiar to me, because he is drawing heavily on Henry Jenkins here, who makes a similar argument in much greater detail in Convergence Culture (yes, Lessig does cite Jenkins). However, where Jenkins was concerned with the social and cultural effects of this shift, and with establishing that those who participate in this way are legitimate cultural producers, Lessig is more interested in how society supports or punishes this sort of cultural participation. Ultimately, he argues that the current copyright system is a threat to cultural participation and needs to be rethought in several ways.
I think this is a really important and valuable argument to make, but the way it’s made here is really pitched to an audience who hasn’t thought about this very much yet, so there are certain rhetorical strategies that rub me the wrong way. Lessig frames what he calls remix culture as a kind of youth culture; although, throughout the book, he cites several instances of really interesting artists who are involved in this, many of the arguments he makes early in the book are based in his concern about the criminalization of “our kids.” While I’d certainly agree that being able to create adaptations of cultural products is a very important part of youth for many, this framing can sometimes seem a little condescending. The desire to participate in the culture in which one lives is not a childish thing which one outgrows—rather, I’d argue that it’s part of being human. I think Lessig understands that, but he wants to use the emotional appeal associated with both individual parenthood and the sense that we, as a culture, are responsible for helping children to develop, and he can do this by emphasizing the importance of such activities to young people. If one is writing about childhood (as Jenkins does at one point, actually), then this is a really powerful point, but in the broader context of participatory culture, I didn’t really need it. Again, this is an audience mismatch. It’s also very important for Lessig to present himself as a moderate throughout. In fact, I agree that he is a moderate, as the reforms he suggests here are actually rather modest. However, since I’m already on board with the copyright reform thing and am in the process of becoming fairly well-informed about participatory culture, I didn’t really need the constant reassurance that the point he’s making here is a reasonable one.
There was a long section in the middle dealing with hybrid cultures—partially RW and partially RO which I need to think through further. This is an interesting thing, because it becomes difficult to draw the distinction between enabling participation and exploiting free labor, and Lessig does a good job of showing where the expectations of the participants may conflict with the desires of the more commercial side of things. I wish this part had been expanded and treated more philosophically. Lessig uses many enlightening examples, but in this part of the book he actually ends up sounding a little like Jeff Jarvis: here are some things that technology enables! These things are great! Look what we can do now! … and many of them are pretty cool, actually, but what are the risks, and what are we gaining, and who’s reaping the benefits? He mentions the “Lego-ization” of technology—that is, the ability for these tech companies to build on each other—and the provision of platforms, but the timing is bad; reading this just as the demise of Google Reader has been announced casts it in an altogether less celebratory light. Personally, I have my concerns about the ability for such “hybrid” cultures to convert what is created as RW culture into RO culture through the use of profitable corporations, and I’d definitely like to read more about that.
The end of the book offers practical solutions to the problems that Lessig points out, many of which hinge on making the distinction between amateur and professional creativity. Much of the book has already shown that this can get messy, but I think in many ways this is a good idea; after all, the concept of fair use already recognizes “effect on the market” as one if its four factors. (Lessig argues that we are over-relying on fair use to ameliorate the stringent copyright system we have in place, and he is probably correct, especially given the difficulty of making a good assessment of fair use.) Still, I’m not sure how this would work out legally. They also rest on the argument that the US should have a method of automatic or compulsory licensing that doesn’t require lawyers and legwork and huge fees, especially for orphan works. I’m not sure that his specific proposals will work well—one of them, as far as I can tell, really amounts to setting a price on a cultural product in a way that can’t be influenced by the market. But I do agree that we need to do something about the licensing issue (and I’d say Creative Commons has been a step toward this).
Looking over this post, I guess I’d have to say I was a little disappointed by the book, but not, you know, in a bad way. Lessig is a very engaging writer and I’m glad that we have someone like him, who has both credibility and rhetorical talents, to do this activism in a really prominent way. I guess I’ve just been taken by surprise by how much I know now…