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.


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  23. Mark,

    Well, it’s certainly the case that Hollywood tends to donate to Democrats, but the data on media ownership *in general* show a fairly broad spectrum, including heavy ownership by folks who identify as Republican. Murdoch’s News Corp, for example, is one of the five largest media companies in the world. The myth that media are “dominated” by liberals is simply false if you look at ownership data.

    Media are owned by *shareholders* in today’s world, some of whom are liberal, some of whom are conservative. All of whom are interested in making returns on their investments. Which means that regardless of ideological position, all media companies have a self-interest in pushing for copyright legislation which benefits large aggregators of content.

    The reality is that money flows from media companies on both sides of the aisle — Democrat and Republican — to political candidates, which causes both sides to support more restrictive copyright legislation. Lessig’s point is precisely this — neither party is willing to protect traditional rights of fair use or public domain because both parties recieve significant funding from media.

  24. Because all the media companies (movie studios, etc.) are dominated by liberals, and they donate money to Democratic candidaes, the Democrats protect them.