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Lessig: IP Victory at Hand, Web-Enabled Attack on 'Corrupt' Hill Next

Publication Date: 
February 04, 2008
Source: 
Washington Internet Daily
Author: 
Louis Trager

Professor Lessig is the subject of a Washington Internet Daily article summarizing his recent "Farewell-to-Free-Culture" speech:

Professor Lawrence Lessig is confident that the movement will triumph ultimately, he said last week as he pondered a new mission: An Internet- centric campaign aimed at getting rid of congressional corruption that he says tips the legal scales far toward rights holders. The Stanford law professor was giving the valedictory lecture in his "Free Culture" series, which dates from the 1998 enactment of the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act. "I'm not comfortable being so confident about success," Lessig said. "So I had to find another impossible task."

A popular reform movement that awards seals of approval to candidates could in eight years clean up Congress and clear the way to dealing with health care, global warming and poverty, as well as digital copyright, Lessig said. A movement he called for discussion "Change Congress" could endorse candidates who commit to abolishing earmarks, refusing lobbyist and PAC contributions and supporting public financing of campaigns, he said. Those endorsements gradually would lead to donations, offsetting the loss of big-money contributions, he said. "Let's embrace a litmus test here: 'Unless you've embraced these anti-corruption principles, you don't get our votes, period,'" Lessig said.

The movement would start small, with one or two members of Congress taking the pledge. But "in two or three election cycles, you could imagine" it "rolling into... a consensus" on the political system, Lessig said. "The problem could be solved." It might not work, but nothing else will, he said. Lessig takes as his model the Taxpayer Protection Pledge of Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, he said: "We on the left have to learn from the right."

The Internet "is a critical tool" in the strategy, Lessig told us by e-mail. "It will enable a much wider range of people to participate in this than otherwise could." His ideas for online tactics are coming from the Sunlight Foundation, where he's on the advisory board, and MAPLight.org, whose board he joined recently, he added. Those organizations aim to use the Web innovatively to show links between money and government action.

A grassroots digital-rights movement is bringing the market around to appreciating the staying power of an emerging "remix" culture and the business opportunities it presents, Lessig said in his lecture. He's optimistic about copyright -- even in the face of the "corruption" that prompted his new cause -- because now "money is on our side," he said by e-mail. "The market is beginning to recognize the huge sunk cost that our radically inefficient copyright system is imposing on everyone. That will help the debate."

Progress comes not from "lawyers screaming at lawyers but creators talking to creators," Lessig said in his lecture. He said he recently spoke at Pixar, "an extraordinary location of creativity." He said he told his audience there that "you've lost control" of the company's content. "It's not like this is a choice any more. Now what do you do?... You begin to bring the audience in. You invite them and you show them respect," such as by allowing noncommercial use of material from the company's movies. "Encourage the creativity that they are going to do anyway."

Lessig contrasted his ideas with Lucasfilm's Star Wars mashup site, whose terms of service give the company ownership of remixes and "a permanent, worldwide, free" license to uploaded music, he said. "It's a kind of sharecropping in the digital world, where you do all the work and he [George Lucas] owns all the stuff." Lucasfilm didn't respond right away to a request for comment Friday.

Lessig founded Creative Commons to promote some- rights-reserved licenses encouraging reuse of works, as well as the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. Thursday's lecture was recorded as part of the final shooting for an OpenSourceCinema.org documentary on digital copyright, Basement Tapes.

In his lecture, Lessig lauded a presidential candidate he later identified as Sen. Barack Obama, D- Ill., for supporting release of government information on money and politics in machine-readable form. But relying on disclosure isn't enough, he said. "Once we all see that everyone's doing it" a possible public response would be: "What's the problem? Everyone's doing it," he said.

Two strategic failures came to light in the 2003 "total defeat" of his Supreme Court challenge to the copyright extension, Lessig said. One was focusing on copyrighted material, as exemplified in "Free Mickey" Mouse bumper stickers and lapel buttons, rather than the loss to the culture of works that the law kept out of the public domain, he said. Half the movies made before 1950 and 80 percent of those predating 1929 have been lost because rights holders weren't interested in preserving them, Lessig said.

The other error was "liberal lawyer-centric," Lessig said: Automatically embracing the model of Thurgood Marshall in Brown v. Board of Education and counting on getting courts "to stand up for us." This overlooks that problems often are political, not constitutional, and the only battleground where they can be won is in "the understanding" of "ordinary people," he said.

The past five years, "I've been working a lot to correct these mistakes," Lessig said. Creative Commons responds to the lessons of defeat by focus on small creators' innovations and on the grassroots, he said. The big change has been the "copyright wars," he said: Rights holders seeking greater control over how the culture is used while technology, especially online social video, has unleashed "an explosion... of creative freedom," creating "a read-write culture," Lessig said. He highlighted a "call and response" pattern in which "people create culture and invite others to respond to it" with interpretations of their own.

At the iCommons Summit in Dubrovik, Croatia, in June 2007, Lessig said, he realized that, despite the successes of "free culture," public policy in general responds to "the influence that money buys." He said that "until the corruption is solved, the screwiness remains" across political issues. "Extraordinary public attention" has been "directed to this" the past six months, Lessig said. He called the refusal by the Obama and Edwards campaigns to accept PAC and lobbyist contributions very encouraging. But "electing a president to get rid of corruption" is as impractical as "racing to the Supreme Court to protect free culture," Lessig said.