Free Culture

One of the great things about laptops is that you can use them to catch up on your reading when you travel; in my case, it meant that I finally got round to reading Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture [free PDF available]. I’ve no idea why it took me so long: it’s great stuff and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the world of copyright law, digital rights management technology and bad laws in general.

In the book, Lessig shows the importance of public domain works – so for example, most of Disney’s famous output is based on others, from Steamboat Willie (the first appearance of the character who would become Mickey Mouse, and a cartoon copy of a film called Steamboat Bill) to films based on the works of the Brothers Grimm. It’s rather ironic that today, Disney is one of the studios behind the constant extensions to copyright that prevent its own works being adapted by others.

The core argument of the book is that the combination of technology and copyright law is enabling copyright owners to do things that are bad for our culture: “code becomes law”, as Lessig puts it. For example, the publisher of an ebook can prevent you from printing it out, cutting and pasting sections into a document or blog post, listening to it with screenreading software (something that’s essential for partially sighted computer users) and so on. Thanks to laws such as the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the European Union Copyright Directive, bypassing these ridiculous restrictions also bypasses the copy protection system, which is an offence.

Lessig backs up his argument with lots of examples: the eBook of Alice In Wonderland, a work that’s in the public domain, doesn’t let you print it out or copy any of the text, two things you are legally entitled to do; a search engine that indexes a network can be sued by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) if it finds a few illegal MP3s; and so on. He also demonstrates the way in which the combination of current law and the deep pockets of copyright owners can be abused: in the case of a search engine that caught the eye of the RIAA, it’s pretty clear that the developer wasn’t trying to create a tool for pirates, but instead was essentially trying to build a Google-style service for his university network. However, fighting the case in court would have cost $250,000 *even if he won*, while the statutory damages in US copyright law meant that had he lost, he could have been liable for up to $15 million in damages. Faced with Hobson’s Choice, the developer handed over his life savings to the RIAA to get them to withdraw their lawsuit.

Nobody who makes their living from copyright (like I do, and like Lessig does) would disagree that copyright owners have the right to protect themselves from infringement, but there’s a fine balance between protection and abuse. So for example if I write a book, another publisher shouldn’t be able to come along, reprint the book and profit from my work without paying me; similarly I shouldn’t be able to copy and paste someone’s blog post in its entirety, sell it to a magazine under my own name and sit back to count the money, or release my own version of Radiohead’s Greatest Hits and flog it down the market. Copyright law, rightly in my opinion, protects copyright owners from such abuses. However, the technology used to enforce those laws also removes your ability to resell products you’ve purchased, your ability to use the hardware or software of your choice to read ebooks or listen to music, your ability to cut and paste sections for a review or a thesis, and so on. In some cases, it even prevents you from skipping the adverts on DVDs.

We’re still in the early stages of electronic media: ebook sales are tiny compared to real books; download sales are tiny compared to CD sales; electronic magazines are still taking their first, baby steps, and so on. But the assault on long established rights – the right to resell things you’ve bought; the right to criticise and review publications; the right to use the hardware and software of your choice – has already started.

update

Guest blogging on Lessig’s site, Rich Boucher writes about the Pay Per Use society:

Whenever I speak with librarians about fair use or the Copyright Act more generally, I inevitably hear them express concerns that we run the risk of becoming a pay per use society, one in which content is available only for a fee. I am concerned that the bookmobiles we all grew up with and their modern day equivalents will go the way of the eight track and the reel-to-reel, replaced by a world in which access to information will depend on the ability to pay and, worse, a world in which a payment gets you only a license to view or listen to something, not to actually own it.