Book review: “Free Culture” by Lawrence Lessig

I enjoyed reading Lawrence Lessig’s book “Free Culture” – which is freely available online.

Professor Lessig takes the reader through a fascinating trip that drives a single point home: The current blanket copyright protectionism is hurting our culture.

Passages from the book I enjoyed:

A Cold-war era propaganda film, courtesy of the Internet Archive:

Want to see a copy of the “Duck and Cover” film that instructed children how to save themselves in the middle of nuclear attack? Go to, and you can download the film in a few minutes—for free.

The asymmetry of our reaction to content sharing:

The obvious point of Conrad’s cartoon is the weirdness of a world where guns are legal, despite the harm they can do, while VCRs (and circumvention technologies) are illegal. Flash: No one ever died from copyright circumvention. Yet the law bans circumvention technologies absolutely, despite the potential that they might do some good, but permits guns, despite the obvious and tragic harm they do.

Never in our history have fewer had a legal right to control more of the development of our culture than now.

Some fascinating statistics that show how the law penalises the vast majority of culture, just to allow a tiny subset of it to keep on cashing in for their rights holders:

In 1930, 10,047 books were published. In 2000, 174 of those books were still in print. Let’s say you were Brewster Kahle, and you wanted to make available to the world in your iArchive project the remaining 9,873. What would you have to do?

Forget all the works from the 1920s and 1930s that have continuing commercial value. The real harm of term extension comes not from these famous works. The real harm is to the works that are not famous, not commercially exploited, and no longer available as a result. If you look at the work created in the first twenty years (1923 to 1942) affected by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, 2 percent of that work has any continuing commercial value. It was the copyright holders for that 2 percent who pushed the CTEA through. But the law and its effect were not limited to that 2 percent. The law extended the terms of copyright generally.

[…] most books go out of print within one year. The same is true of music and film.

As one researcher calculated for American culture, 94 percent of the films, books, and music produced between 1923 and 1946 is not commercially available.

A smart fix to blanket copyright law by professor Lessig: Make long-term copyright opt-in:

[…] I proposed a simple fix: Fifty years after a work has been published, the copyright owner would be required to register the work and pay a small fee. If he paid the fee, he got the benefit of the full term of copyright. If he did not, the work passed into the public domain.

How “the industry” has opposed the above proposal and what that shows about the war on culture we’re currently going through:

The opposition to the Eldred Act reveals how extreme the other side is. The most powerful and sexy and well loved of lobbies really has as its aim not the protection of “property” but the rejection of a tradition. Their aim is not simply to protect what is theirs. Their aim is to assure that all there is is what is theirs.

So when the common sense of your child confronts you, what will you say? When the common sense of a generation finally revolts against what we have done, how will we justify what we have done? What is the argument?

On the cool BBC Creative Archive pilot that ran till 2006:

the BBC has just announced that it will build a “Creative Archive,” from which British citizens can download BBC content, and rip, mix, and burn it.

On the Public Library of Science:

The Public Library of Science (PLoS), for example, is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to making scientific research available to anyone with a Web connection. Authors of scientific work submit that work to the Public Library of Science. That work is then subject to peer review. If accepted, the work is then deposited in a public, electronic archive and made permanently available for free.

On Peter Wayner’s freely available book “Free for All”:

Peter Wayner, who wrote a book about the free software movement titled Free for All, made an electronic version of his book free on-line under a Creative Commons license after the book went out of print. He then monitored used book store prices for the book. As predicted, as the number of downloads increased, the used book price for his book increased, as well.

This passage made me think again about stuff I’ve published online (blog posts, photos etc) – I am ditching the default “all rights reserved” and going for less restrictive Creative Commons licenses:

Finally, there are many who mark their content with a Creative Commons license just because they want to express to others the importance of balance in this debate. If you just go along with the system as it is, you are effectively saying you believe in the “All Rights Reserved” model. Good for you, but many do not.

On how the term of copyright just keeps being extended:

The term of copyright has gone from fourteen years to ninety-five years for corporate authors, and life of the author plus seventy years for natural authors.

On avoiding knee-jerk reactions and focusing on what matters:

This point about the future is meant to suggest a perspective on the present: It is emphatically temporary. The “problem” with file sharing—to the extent there is a real problem—is a problem that will increasingly disappear as it becomes easier to connect to the Internet. And thus it is an extraordinary mistake for policy makers today to be “solving” this problem in light of a technology that will be gone tomorrow. The question should not be how to regulate the Internet to eliminate file sharing (the Net will evolve that problem away). The question instead should be how to assure that artists get paid, during this transition between twentieth-century models for doing business and twenty-first-century technologies.

You know how the RIAA and MPAA are crying “piracy kills music”? This, of course, has happened before:

See Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, Technology Evolution and the Music Industry’s Business Model Crisis (2003). This report describes the music industry’s effort to stigmatize the budding practice of cassette taping in the 1970s, including an advertising campaign featuring a cassette-shape skull and the caption “Home taping is killing music.”

On how copyright is being misused for reckless profiteering, killing creativity:

Jon Else is a filmmaker. He is best known for his documentaries and has been very successful in spreading his art. He is also a teacher, and as a teacher myself, I envy the loyalty and admiration that his students feel for him. (I met, by accident, two of his students at a dinner party. He was their god.)

Else worked on a documentary that I was involved in. At a break, he told me a story about the freedom to create with film in America today.

In 1990, Else was working on a documentary about Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The focus was stagehands at the San Francisco Opera. Stagehands are a particularly funny and colorful element of an opera. During a show, they hang out below the stage in the grips’ lounge and in the lighting loft. They make a perfect contrast to the art on the stage.

During one of the performances, Else was shooting some stagehands playing checkers. In one corner of the room was a television set. Playing on the television set, while the stagehands played checkers and
the opera company played Wagner, was The Simpsons. As Else judged it, this touch of cartoon helped capture the flavor of what was special about the scene.

Years later, when he finally got funding to complete the film, Else attempted to clear the rights for those few seconds of The Simpsons. For of course, those few seconds are copyrighted; and of course, to use copyrighted material you need the permission of the copyright owner, unless “fair use” or some other privilege applies.

Else called Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s office to get permission. Groening approved the shot. The shot was a four-and-a-half-second image on a tiny television set in the corner of the room. How could it hurt? Groening was happy to have it in the film, but he told Else to contact Gracie Films, the company that produces the program.

Gracie Films was okay with it, too, but they, like Groening, wanted to be careful. So they told Else to contact Fox, Gracie’s parent company. Else called Fox and told them about the clip in the corner of the one
room shot of the film. Matt Groening had already given permission, Else said. He was just confirming the permission with Fox.

Then, as Else told me, “two things happened. First we discovered . . . that Matt Groening doesn’t own his own creation—or at least that someone [at Fox] believes he doesn’t own his own creation.” And second, Fox “wanted ten thousand dollars as a licensing fee for us to use this four-point-five seconds of . . . entirely unsolicited Simpsons which was in the corner of the shot.”

Else was certain there was a mistake. He worked his way up to someone he thought was a vice president for licensing, Rebecca Herrera. He explained to her, “There must be some mistake here. . . . We’re asking for your educational rate on this.” That was the educational rate, Herrera told Else. A day or so later, Else called again to confirm what he had been told.

“I wanted to make sure I had my facts straight,” he told me. “Yes, you have your facts straight,” she said. It would cost $10,000 to use the clip of The Simpsons in the corner of a shot in a documentary film about
Wagner’s Ring Cycle. And then, astonishingly, Herrera told Else, “And if you quote me, I’ll turn you over to our attorneys.” As an assistant to Herrera told Else later on, “They don’t give a shit. They just want the

Else didn’t have the money to buy the right to replay what was playing on the television backstage at the San Francisco Opera. To reproduce this reality was beyond the documentary filmmaker’s budget. At the very
last minute before the film was to be released, Else digitally replaced the shot with a clip from another film that he had worked on, The Day After Trinity, from ten years before.

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