Lessig, the Abolition Movement and the Wicked Problems We Face

Stumbled over this very thoughtful interview by Charlie Rose with Stanford professor, Creative Commons founder, copyright reformer and Change Congress-initiator Lawrence Lessig (via Lessig’s Blog) :

Lessig has some very interesting remarks re: his meeting with Barack Obama years ago, where Lessig encouraged Obama to seek public office. According to Lessig, Obama responded, “you know, Larry, guys like me don’t make it in public service like that”. Obama presumably felt politics would demand too great compromise, than he felt he was able to give. Seems like he changed his mind. Here’s fingers crossed he’ll have some success in changing that game.

On another interesting note, Rose asks Lessig if he has any concerns in regard to filesharing and what’s happening in ‘free culture’, if he’s to take the perspective of ‘the other side’, i.e. the entertainment industry and MPAA intellectual property lobbyists. His answer is thoughtful and enlightening. Lessig fears, he says, the extent to which the reactionary and draconian IP legislation has created such resistance to copyright law, that the new generation – or a substantial segment of the new generation, will simply abolish copyright law altogether – just get rid of it :

Lessig : I think there is a real risk, because of the growing – I think of it as a kind of abolitionist movement with copyright. People who think that copyright was a great system for the 20th century, but we just need to get rid of it now. It’s not doing any good now, it’s not necessary, let’s just abolish it. Well, I am not an abolitionist. I believe copyright is essential in the digital age. I think we have to find a way to make it sensible in the digital age, but we have a richer, more diverse culture with it than we would without it. But my real fear is that the last ten years has unleashed a kind of revolutionary attitude among the generation that will take over in ten years and it’ll be hard for them to distinguish between sensible copyright legislation and the kind that we’ve got right now. So my real fear is we’re gonna lose control of this animal. Not in the sense, that we’re trying to guide it, but in the sense that we’re creating an environment where we can really have rich, diverse culture. So in this sense I feel like I’m Gorbachyov, not Yeltsin, I’m like an old communist who’s just trying to preserve..

Rose : (laughs) – who’s not gonna let go of everything…

Lessig : Yes exactly right. They just wanted to reform it, to make it make sense.

Rose : But can you do that, I mean?

Lessig : Gorbachyov couldn’t. So I don’t know. But that’s what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid we’re gonna destroy something important. Because the thing copyright does, when it works well, is it’s very democratic. It gives the artist an independent ability to create. He doesn’t have to worry about his patron, supporting his kind of creativity. He can create on his own. And he creates on his own, and he owns what he creates.

Lessig emphasizes the importance of businesses to understand, harness and protect creative communities, like a Yahoo does in ‘securing’ the community of Flickr and the built-in ability of that community to use Creative Commons licensing of their images, or a Google does in similar ways with Picasa.

However, on this occasion as on others Lessig fails to enlighten us on what good copyright does us, when businesses vigorously seek to uphold IP rights in software. Google may harness the creative community of Picasa and enable free licensing within their software and as long as it provides value to their business, but what about the rights of Googlers, whose entire creative work by contract ends up being owned by Google, not by themselves? What good does it do us as a society, that companies benignly builds in free licensing, if, when and where they choose to do so, but seek to uphold IP barriers for users to change the actual software they use daily and operate on their own machines? Does that make us more free as a society, or less free? Does it give us a more diverse or less diverse culture?

Wouldn’t it be better, for transparency, for competition, for our culture of understanding and sharing; for our die hard focus on what’s really at stake; the big problems and big challenges we face as a global community : poverty, disease, pollution and international, armed conflict – to abolish a system, which systematically gets in the way of solving problems we face and which we need to solve? Which systematically gets in the way of enabling us to work together to help share information to crack the hard problems facing all of us? In what way is it democratic for a western author to deny the unauthorized distribution of his audiobook in a third-world country? In what ways do the distribution of Lord of the Rings (itself based on another work of fiction) via p2p networks harm anyone in this culture or another?

Lessig have always been careful not to associate himself with the pro-piracy movement. In 2006 a very nervous Morten Blaabjerg met briefly with Lessig to conduct an interview for a film project. Lessig was then visiting Denmark on the occasion of the official launch of the set of Danish-context adapted Creative Commons licenses.

Among the things I asked Lessig about in this interview was his attitude to what was then happening in Sweden, the police raid on the Pirate Bay. Lessig responded :

The Pirate Party and the people behind it are extraordinarily sophisticated, and this most recent post, a speech at the Reboot conference, called The Grey Commons, is an extremely sophisticated analysis of the problems.

In America, in my view, it’s counterproductive to encourage something called quote ‘piracy’. And the reason it’s counterproductive, is that if that’s what you push, then people stop listening to your argument, because they think that it’s all about, you just wanna be able to get something for free. And, if they stop thinking about the argument, then we’re not gonna make any real progress. So in America, I think this would be a bad strategy, and in fact, I’ve come to regret my role in certain lawsuits, that have gone to the supreme court, defending the right of peer-to-peer filesharing. Not because I don’t believe in the right of peer-to-peer filesharing, but because, as a strategic or even tactical move, focusing on that activity causes more confusion, than it causes understanding.

Now it could be, certainly could be different in Sweden and in Denmark.

There’s a long way from Lessig’s warning to ‘talk of piracy’ as a ‘bad strategic move’ to his talking with Charlie Rose about an ‘abolitionist movement’. This goes to say a lot about what has happened during the last 2-4 years. Use of bittorrent has been and is rapidly expanding, some of this no doubt due to the publicity surrounding the Pirate Bay. What’s more important, IMHO, is that social networking have become near mainstream, as a recent local television story about Facebook, in which I participated, made totally clear. Apparently, the popularity of Facebook among the +45 years old is a lot greater than people usually think. The sharing practices of these social networks have made copyright concerns a lot less practical. If I want to share photos with my friends, why bother thinking about copyright? Why bother about what they do with those photos? Why protect us against who they’re going to show them to, if they will make money on it or not, or whatever protectionist concern there may be. If you put it out there, it’s beyond you and your control. With or without copyright. It hardly makes any difference, as the ability of law enforcement to actually crack down on these sharing practices, is inefficient and good for nothing.

The only problem remains that services, such as Facebook or Google, seek to retain all rights to their users’ activities and information. This creates great problems for users, if they wish to ‘take out’ information and use it elsewhere. The loss of freedom lies not in the architecture, but the inability to help change those architectures, so that users may take their data where they’d like to go, in what ways they’d like to do so. To create a free and culturally diverse online environment, we need not protect ourselves from the use of ‘our data’, but from the entrapment of ‘our data’ in systems beyond our control. We can wait until doomsday for such companies to embrace the GPL. It’s not likely to happen. Our focus should not be the data, on ‘works of art’ – it should be on the systems which enable us to transport data, enable us to work together, share information and solve problems. Right now IP is used to prohibit or make this harder, as it is used to protect software and software companies and their incumbent business models – not the creativity of individual ‘artists’. This is why it is enlightening to read about the open source business strategies of companies such as Sun Microsystems and others. There are other ways to go. Abolition or not-abolition is not really the question. It doesn’t really matter, in so far as just discussing it doesn’t improve our architectures of communication or our problem solving capabilities. Embracing free software now does. Embracing Wikipedia now does. Embracing copyleft licensing does. Embracing tools of sharing, aggregation and open publishing does. Showing the effects of what you do does. Theory doesn’t. Fighting over legal matters doesn’t. Arguing back and forth about abolition of copyright with someone somewhere who doesn’t understand what you’re talking about (and doesn’t care to either) doesn’t.

P2p filesharing is the hope that we can create and maintain architectures of data transportation beyond centralized control. That we can reach out on our own, to reach others and understand each other. That other someone chose to share that particular movie, book or piece of software with us, which might or might not otherwise have reached us via different channels. That particular movie, book or software today – tomorrow something else of great importance. The channels of distribution are not really that interesting, except if your business model depends on measuring numbers of eyeballs, so that you may cash in on the commercials broadcast to these numbers of eyeballs. That’s what seems to be the concern of IP holders. Not to harness creativity, not to nurture a rich, diverse cultural landscape, but to protect incumbent business models, which stands in the way of creating and improving our decentralized methods of data and information sharing.

What’s interesting and what’s at stake is far more important than creating a culturally diverse environment : it’s about saving lives, about enabling us to live together peacefully and take a deep look at the world we’re in and imagine, what kind of place this could be, if we treated it with the same kind of generosity, as it treats us with.

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2 comments ↓

#1 Morten Blaabjerg on 12.16.08 at 12:08 am

Related pieces of interest on this topic :

The Future of Business and Social Media inspired by Lawrence Lessig interview on Charlie Rose

The Rise of the Meta-Community

#2 The World of the Yeltsins — Kaplak Blog on 07.02.10 at 9:50 am

[...] Lessig once referred to himself as the ‘Gorbachev of this movement’, in the sense that he didn’t want to tear down the copyright system, but to reform it. But [...]

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