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Day April 23, 2005

Book #24: Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity, by Lawrence Lessig

Free Culture is an important book, well worth reading by anyone concerned by how digital media will affect free expression, inquiry, and culture. Although I came to Lessig after long use of, and involvement with, open source software, his arguments in favor of a cultural commons (what used to be called the “public domain”) should be compelling even without this background.

Lessig demostrates how the seemingly simple concept of a right to control copying of one’s work has been vastly extended in scope, and in the post-Internet world, threatens to erode more traditional concepts of “fair use” and the public domain. Most importantly, Lessig describes how this threat to traditional cultural freedom is fueled by an over-reaction among content owners over the possible effects of digital technologies to their current business models. The latter, I think, is the most important point – while traditionally our society has chosen to protect culture and leave the protection of business models to the operation of the market, in the war over copyright we’re allowing ourselves to protect business models to the detriment of culture.

And this is an issue where true free-market enthusiasts can make common cause with more traditional liberals. Current copyright law and legislation on digital media are protectionist of companies, not more fundamental economic rights. In other words, the MPAA and RIAA have succeeded in pushing protectionism for the pre-1995 business models of the content industries; furthermore, they’ve managed to go beyond protectionism and make digital copyright violations felonious in a way that older, “analog” violations usually were not.

True believers in free markets should abhor this kind of special-interest protectionism, and should welcome increased freedom for fair use and the public domain. These are, after all, the uncontrolled spaces in which innovation and unstructured competition can occur and thus for markets to periodically restructure themselves.

Traditional liberals, concerned about liberty and the threat that private media concentration creates for honest public debate, should welcome a vibrant and free public domain and ample “fair use” rights. These are, after all, the uncontrolled spaces in which dissent and social innovation can occur, and thus for social change to truly emerge out of deliberative and democratic efforts, rather than being focus-grouped, programmed, and stage-managed as is much of our current politics.

Naturally, radical free marketeers and traditional civil-rights liberals often have little common ground to discuss, and I’m not suggesting that this issue is the basis for a lasting alliance. But it is important to recognize those occasions when both groups could join together in opposition to fight government by lobbyist – a mode of political life that one imagines is causing James Madison to spin rapidly in his Montpelier tomb.