Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity

By in Communications on February 24, 2013

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From “the most important thinker on intellectual property in the Internet era” (“The New Yorker”), a landmark manifesto about the genuine closing of the American mind.
Lawrence Lessig could be called a cultural environmentalist. One of America’s most original and influential public intellectuals, his focus is the social dimension of creativity: how creative work builds on the past and how society encourages or inhibits that building with laws and technologies. In his two previous books, Code and The Future of Ideas, Lessig concentrated on the destruction of much of the original promise of the Internet. Now, in Free Culture, he widens his focus to consider the diminishment of the larger public domain of ideas. In this powerful wake-up call he shows how short-sighted interests blind to the long-term damage they’re inflicting are poisoning the ecosystem that fosters innovation.
All creative works-books, movies, records, software, and so on-are a compromise between what can be imagined and what is possible-technologically and legally. For more than two hundred years, laws in America have sought a balance between rewarding creativity and allowing the borrowing from which new creativity springs. The original term of copyright set by the Constitution in 1787 was seventeen years. Now it is closer to two hundred. Thomas Jefferson considered protecting the public against overly long monopolies on creative works an essential government role. What did he know that we’ve forgotten?
Lawrence Lessig shows us that while new technologies always lead to new laws, never before have the big cultural monopolists used the fear created by new technologies, specifically the Internet, to shrink the public domain of ideas, even as the same corporations use the same technologies to control more and more what we can and can’t do with culture. As more and more culture becomes digitized, more and more becomes controllable, even as laws are being toughened at the behest of the big media groups. What’s at stake is our freedom-freedom to create, freedom to build, and ultimately, freedom to imagine.

2 thoughts on “Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity

  1. James J. Lippard "skeptic"
    29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    today’s content owners are yesterday’s pirates, July 5, 2006
    James J. Lippard “skeptic” (Phoenix, AZ USA) –

    Lessig has written a very clear and entertaining book about copyright, piracy, and culture, filled with lots of real-world examples to make his points. The book covers major events in the history of copyright in the United States (from its beginnings in English common law and the UK Statute of Anne) in order to show how its meaning has changed, and how those who are making accusations of piracy today were the pirates of yesterday. (Jessica Littman’s book, Digital Copyright, is a nice complement to this book, covering the history of copyright in greater depth.) Lessig makes a strong case that the direction of copyright, giving greater control over content to a very small number of owners than has ever existed, is eroding the freedom that we’ve historically had to preserve and transform the elements of our culture.

    Lessig begins by describing how the notion of a real property right for land extending into the sky to “an indefinite extent, upwards” became a real rather than theoretical issue with the invention of the airplane. In 1945, the Causbys, a family of North Carolina farmers, filed a suit against the government for trespassing with its low-flying planes, and the Supreme Court declared the airways to be public space. This example shows how the scope of property rights can change with changes of technology, in this particular case resulting in an uncompensated taking from private property owners, yet leading to enormous innovation and the development of a new industry and form of transportation. He follows this with the example of the development of FM radio, which was intentionally back-burnered by RCA and then hobbled by government regulation at RCA’s behest in order to protect its existing investment in AM radio. This example shows how powerful interests can stifle technological change through its ownership of intellectual property (in this case, the patents regarding FM radio).

    He then discusses how intellectual property laws have developed in the U.S., pointing out that Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse made his talking picture debut in the movie “Steamboat Willie” (he had earlier appeared in a silent cartoon, “Plane Crazy”), which was a parody of Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill.” Many of Disney’s characters and stories were taken directly from the previous work of others, such as the Brothers Grimm–works in the public domain, freely available for such copying. As new forms of media have been created, they have borrowed from previous forms. Today, however, the creators of content who have borrowed from their predecessors have successfully changed the rules so that their successors cannot borrow from them, both by extending the term and scope of copyright protection and by developing technologies that have greatly reduced the ability of successors to borrow or re-use content. The specific rules are completely inconsistent, based on the political power of the relevant parties at the time the laws were changed. When Edison developed the ability to record sounds, including recording music written by others, copyright law was changed to provide for compulsory licensing for a fee paid to the composer. With radio broadcasting, the fee still goes to the composer, but not to the recording artist. But put that same radio broadcast on the Internet, and now fees must be paid to both the composer and the recording artist.

    Where there used to be a sea of unregulated uses of copyrighted material containing a small island of restricted uses (with shores of fair use), there is now a vast continent of restricted uses, a stark cliff of fair use, and a tiny channel of unregulated uses. Lessig shows a table on pp. 170-171 showing commercial and noncommercial uses and the rights to publish and transform for each. In 1790, copyright only governed publication rights for commercial uses, the other three cells of the table being free. At the end of the 19th century, publication and transformation for commercial use was governed by copyright, while noncommercial use was free. The law was changed to govern copies, including much noncommercial use. Today, all four cells of the table are governed by copyright.

    Lessig discusses Eric Eldred’s attempt to defend the right to transform public domain works into electronic versions by fighting Congress’s continuing extensions of the term of copyright in the face of the Constitution’s restriction to “limited Times,” and how the case was lost at the U.S. Supreme Court to inconsistent reasoning from the conservative justices who failed to even address the commerce clause argument and the precedent they set in Lopez v. Morrison case. This is a wonderfully written, persuasive, entertaining, and dismaying book. It deserves to be widely read and understood, so that ultimately intellectual property law in the U.S. will be reformed.


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  2. 2
    60 of 66 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Ten million reasons why copyright should be reformed, May 16, 2004
    Jerry Brito (Washington, DC USA) –

    This review is from: Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (Hardcover)

    Lawrence Lessig’s “Free Culture” is nothing short of brilliant. It outlines an incredibly important modern problem that is lost under the noise of more pressing concerns like the war in Iraq or corporate scandals. That problem is the loss of our culture at the hands of intellectual property law. And what that problem lacks in immediacy and prime-time-worthy sex appeal, it makes up in long-term consequences.

    Lessig does a formidable job of making the issue come alive for both experts and laymen with his use of anecdotes that clearly illustrate how the ever-growing term and scope of copyright have stifled creativity and shrunken the portion of our culture in the public domain. He shows how the content industry is trying to redefine IP as the equivalent of tangible property, when it is not and has never been, and how that industry has manipulated Congress and the Courts to get closer to its goal.

    If you followed the Eldred v. Ashcroft case (like I did; I was lucky to be at oral argument before the Supremes), you’ll want to pick up this book for Lessig’s inside account. Most of it is a mea culpa for not realizing that the Court didn’t want a constitutional argument, but a consequentialist one. I’m not sure this would have made a difference. The Court’s right, who, like Lessig, I thought would chime in for a strict reading of what is clear language of “limited times” in the Copyright Clause, must have had some special reason for turning their backs on their originalist rhetoric and I doubt that a political argument would have changed their minds. I still can’t understand what that reason might be, and I refuse to believe it’s just the dead hand of stare decisis that gave Scalia pause. Lessig is obviously very upset at that Justice; while he does mention having clerked for Judge Posner, Lessig doesn’t mention in his bio (neither in the dust jacket nor the back pages of the book) that he clerked for Scalia in 1990-91.

    One curious thing about the book is that throughout it Lessig implies that he is a leftist and that the ideas he is advocating are leftist. He patronizingly writes at a couple of points that he would be surprised if a person on the right had read that far. I think he is selling himself-and conservative readers-short. In fact, there is very little in the book incompatible with a conservative or libertarian free-market viewpoint. Private interests using the power of the state to distort the market and quash their competitors, and an originalist Jeffersonian interpretation of the Constitution as the response are very conservative themes indeed.

    But it’s not all agreement. I, like most free marketeers, will object to parts of Free Culture. Foremost among them are Lessig’s concerns about media concentration. The fact is that there are more options today in television and radio than 20 years ago, and the the explosion of Internet sites and blogs, which Lessig spends most of the book lauding, belies the idea that news can be controlled. And it is interesting that Lessig seems to understand this. He says that he has seen concentration only as market efficiency in action, and that only recently has he ‘begun to change his mind’. His skepticism is reflected in the fact that he only dedicated a small section (7 pages) to the issue. Another point of contention will be some of the solutions he proposes. While I applaud the idea of shorter terms that must be renewed with payment of a token fee, compulsory licensing and fees paid out by the government out of general revenues is beyond the pail. Won’t such mechanisms be ripe for corporate manipulation as well?

    Still, small quibbles aside, this book beautifully puts the IP issue in perspective. Everyone is touched by copyright whether they know it or not. This book shows us how the future of our culture is a dark one unless we change course soon.

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