Lessig @ Edinburgh Science Festival

Larry Lessig did his “30 minute intro to Creative Commons” at the Edinburgh Science Festival this Saturday as part of a panel discussion on “who owns ideas in the digital age”. I haven’t read any of his books before, so it was nice to hear the story straight from the man himself. To be honest, the talk left me with more questions than answers – though given the complex and multifaceted topic, this probably represents a successful mindshare victory by Lessig.

Lessig stressed something which I think needs to be stated more often: breaking the law by stealing people’s copyrighted material is wrong. His argument is in favour of reform of the copyright system, not the abolition of the concept of copyright. Copyright is a fine idea. A world with a (good) copyright system is much preferable to a copyright-free world. Continually restating this might be dull, but it’s a good pre-emptive defence against the straw-man argument used by those in favour of the status-quo: “these people are anti-IP” or “there people are pirates”.

There are two arguments which Lessig puts forward in his talk, which aren’t clearly distinguished. Firstly, there is the “WHERE DID ALL OUR FREEDOM GO?” argument. Lessig tells us that the copyright laws which (in days gone by) let us legally produce derived or “remixed” works have, in the digital age, been reinterpreted in such a way to remove these rights almost entirely. Secondly, there is “LET THE PEOPLE CHOOSE TO SHARE” argument. In most countries today, whenever you produce a creative work you automatically get a heavyweight “all rights reserved” copyright on the work. Until recently, unless you were a legal whiz, your choices were limited to accepting this heavyweight copyright or putting your work in the public domain – a binary choice. The Creative Commons licenses make it easy for people to choose (woo, cartoons!) a less restrictive set of terms for their works, as suits their own preferences.

Now, I see Lessig with two hats on. With his “WHERE DID ALL OUR FREEDOM GO?” hat, he is alerting the world to this change in interpretation of copyright laws, and lobbying for a restoration of our age-old rights. Copyright has got broken, so lets fix it.

But then Lessig puts on his “LET THE PEOPLE CHOOSE TO SHARE” hat. The Creative Commons licenses allow people to easily choose to put their own works under a less restrictive license. It’s like an opt-out clause from the the brokeness of the default copyright situation.

But Creative Commons doesn’t directly address the fact that the “default” copyright has been broken by the digital era, and needs fixing.

To be fair, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the Creative Commons MIGHT be a stepping stone towards properly fixing copyright. I am walking a similar path with my open map making project. I would like the UK government to produce map data (centrally funded) and make it freely available (like the USA does). At the moment, the Ordnance Survey receive taxpayers money, but jealously guard their “Intellectual Property” and will charge you lots of money for access to the raw data. I don’t expect that immediately lobbying my MP would lead to much movement on this issue. Instead, myself and others around the country are involved in a grassroots effort to produce our own free map data. This first step may provide extra leverage in our argument for change at the Ordnance Survey. Creative Commons and OpenStreetmap are making small ripples in their respective arenas, but always with an eye on the end goal.

However, this stepping stone notion might be flawed. Bill Thompson put forward the point that “LET THE PEOPLE CHOOSE TO SHARE” might hurt the effort to fix the “WHERE DID ALL OUR FREEDOM GO” problem. MGM and Disney will argue that today’s copyright law is working just fine (for them) and doesn’t need fixed and, hey, if you really care there’s this dandy Creative Commons thing to keep them hippies happy. Taking a local analogy, some people have observed in Scotland that devolution, far from being a stepping stone towards independence, has made independence much less likely. You hit a local maximum and stick there.

This intertwining of the two themes is my main gripe (albeit a minor one) with Lessig’s presentation. The discussion skips from one to the other and back again without much delination.

Another thing I don’t understand yet (which came up in discussion with Anthony afterwards) is why Creative Commons licenses need to be “localized” into various legal juristictions whilst the GPL doesn’t. If I was an Evil Lawyer arguing against the GPL, I’d be asking the jury to consider why the incredibly good lawyers behind Creative Commons have taken the care to localize the licenses, whilst the GPL has not been localized. Does this mean that if I use the GPL and I live in the UK it’s weaker?

Having said all that, I really enjoyed the talk, although the pace was pretty fast and it took me a while afterwards to detangle it in my head. I wish there was more time for questions and discussion afterwards (and fewer people taking up time asking weird questions). Beforehand my level of knowledge on the subject was pretty much “everything I know I learned from the slashdot summary”. Now I feel informed. Yay for living in a city where they do lectures like this. Tomorrow evening is a talk about nanotech.

2 thoughts on “Lessig @ Edinburgh Science Festival”

  1. I’m not sure your analogy is valid — “LET THE PEOPLE CHOOSE TO SHARE” and “WHERE DID ALL OUR FREEDOM GO” are (as you correctly identify) qualitatively distinct points, whereas devolution is arguably somewhere on a continuous spectrum between ‘no regional governance’ and ‘independent state’.

    I still think that Bill Thompson’s concern (as quoted by you, haven’t read the linked article) is valid, but not as strongly as stated. From my other readings of Lessig I think what he’s getting at is a change of culture, as well as a change of law (or prevention of new laws, depending). In this light his intertwining of the themes makes a lot more sense.

    “LET THE PEOPLE CHOOSE TO SHARE” and “WHERE DID ALL OUR FREEDOM GO” have a common foundation in a culture of information sharing. It seems to me that “WHERE DID ALL OUR FREEDOM GO” represents the loss of an old culture of information sharing — one where the law was set up to protect creators, but contained an acknowledgement that there is an intellectual commons. “LET THE PEOPLE CHOOSE TO SHARE” represents a new culture of information sharing — in the light of increasing attempts (through law and technology) to control created content, people can choose (as Lessig states) something between absolute control and the public domain.

    And, I wish I’d known that the talk was happening ….

  2. Alisdair, I do apologise. I thought I’d mailed you about it, but the message was composed offline and it is still sitting in a hidden outbox folder. (Along with a couple others I drafted over a month ago. Bad mail client!)

    Andrew, apart from the obvious recommendation to read Free Culture (in almost any format imaginable), I think this Lessig presentation is a much better one. I was glad of the “culture is remix” slant of the Edinburgh talk because I hadn’t heard him do it before, but the other talk has better grounding, better developed arguments, and a very good Q+A at the end.

    I am not worried that the copyright cartels might use the opt-out licenses as an excuse not to change their own policies. I care more about, the Long Tail, “the 80% of stuff that didn’t used to be worth selling “the 80% of stuff that didn’t used to be worth selling”. Meanwhile it isn’t as if Lessig isn’t fighting hard for various very moderate yet highly desirable copyright reforms.

    With respect to localizing the GPL, I believe the explanation is that rmsINAL, but of cours IANAL either. But the existing text is plain English with a well-established global interpretation, and a less direct relationship with the details of copyright that do have a more jurisdiction-dependent status. And I think you can always assign copyright to the FSF after the fact if there’s ever a need to bring a case to trial (clearly not an option for many of the CC licenses.)

    The thing I learnt that surprised me the most was our ridiculous
    legislation regarding so-called “derogatory treatments” of work
    . I would like an option to assign that right away in the Scottish port of CC, thanks very much! Who wants to build on a work when the creator has the right to claim you’ve hurt their feelings and so can take their ball away again at any time?

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