Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Remix-Based Read/Write Culture Vs. The Read-Only Choke-Hold: Lawrence Lessig Video Highlights

Sponsored Links

The Read/Write culture of the remix and mash up are reshaping the web as we know it.

Photo credit: Jonan Basterra

But both continue to be threatened by those who would maintain an economic choke-hold on creativity. For while smart start-ups and media producers are backing the new wave of democratic, participatory media, the monolithic entertainment industry continues to strengthen its grip on intellectual property with increasingly restrictive copyright legislation.

Lawrence Lessig needs no introduction - outspoken advocate of the Read/Write, remix culture and father of the Creative Commons, Lessig's mission has long been to expose the ridiculousness of intellectual property law as its stands today, while providing a powerful alternative to its restrictive implementation.

In this video selection of Lessig in action, delivering his trademark presentations I have selected a handful of highlights from the recent Wikimania conference, alongside an earlier presentation on the topic of his seminal book Free Culture.

The recurring theme should be studied by every kid in every school across the planet - the Read Only culture of restrictive copyright, top-down information dissemination and passive consumers was little more than a historical aberration. The twentieth century stands alone in its fierce control of intellectual property to the point of creating a society of passive consumers in the wake of true, vibrant participatory culture.

Web 2.0 is turbo-charging our capacity to re-establish this vibrant, participatory, people-driven, creative culture. But we nevertheless face greater threats than ever to our cultural liberties, as corporations in league with legislators dream up new ways to monetize and fasten down the media being created online.

Lawrence Lessig is one of the key thinkers and activists with the tools for everyday people, independent publishers, artists, musicians and film-makers to fight back and reclaim the culture that is rightfully theirs while still retaining control over their creative output.

In this video showcase, I have highlighted some of his central contentions, and drawn out the essence of the argument: for our culture to thrive.

For it, to really take off and be as rich as it can possibly be, the winds of change are going to have to sweep away the copyright culture of the twentieth century and the corporate culture of Digital Rights Management that has sprung from it. The alternatives are there. Read on, and find out what they are.

Photo credit: Juan Felipe Rubio

Creativity and Innovation always Build on the Past

In the first clip, taken from Lessig's 2004 presentation on Free Culture Lessig points out the basic principles on which his work is based. In every culture, at every time there is a pull between the emerging culture and its creativity, and those that would seek to preserve the status quo.

However, this tension has become much greater in recent times as intellectual property legislation has gone unchecked, placing powerful rights in the hands of content publishers. This has been at the expense of an authentic, participatory culture belonging to the people engaging with that culture. By criminalizing, for example, the sampling of music for use in new and creative remixes, record companies clamp down on the ability of musicians to do what they have always done - tap into and transform the music that came before them.

  1. ''Creativity and innovation always builds on the past
  2. The past always tries to control the creativity that builds on it
  3. Free societies enable the future by limiting the past
  4. Ours is less and less a free society''

Law, Technology and Copyright

The Internet has heralded a previously unthinkable access to information, unparalleled by anything in history. It seems crazy, then, that the same intellectual property model applied to the age of scarcity - of the one off, the original article, the 'limited edition' - should be applied to a medium that relies on the copying of information from one place to another.

But this is exactly the situation we are facing. If everything is a copy, Lessig asks, and copyright legislation as it exists today is in the business of regulating copies, does this not leave us in the perilous position of having the sum total of culture regulated from above?

Lawrence Lessig: Law and technology together produces a kind of regulation we have not seen before. Here's a simple copyright lesson - law regulates copies, what's that mean? Well, before the Internet, think of this as the world of all possible uses, are they copyrighted work? Most of them are unregulated. Stop talking about fair use, this is not fair use, this is unregulated uses. To read it - its not a fair use, its an unregulated use. To give it to someone - its not a fair use, its unregulated. To sell it, to sleep on top of it, to do any of these things with this text is unregulated.

Now, in the center of this unregulated use is a small bit of stuff regulated by the copyright law, for example publishing the book - that's regulated.

And then, within the small range of things regulated by copyright law there's this tiny band before the internet of stuff we call fair use. Uses that otherwise would be regulated, but that the law says you can engage in without the permission of anybody else. For example, quoting a text in another text - that's a copy but it's still a fair use.

That means the world was divided into three camps, not two: unregulated uses, regulated uses that were fair use and our quintessential copyright world. Three categories.

Enter the Internet. Every act is a copy. Which means - all of these unregulated uses disappear. Presumptively, everything you do on your machine, on the network, is a regulated use.
Photo credit: Tomy Pelluz

Read/Write Culture: Sousa was Right

One hundred years ago there existed a genuine concern that the new technology of the voice recorder would rob everyday people of their cultural heritage, of their direct participation in the spoken and musical life of their community. While few of us now could imagine not having access to recorded music, this fear was to an extent well founded.

Not, though, because of the technology of sound recording alone, but through its marriage to law. As the early recording industry developed, so too the control that they had over content grew with them, and this takes us right up to today, when purchasing a music track from iTunes means that you are also purchasing the right to play it only on an iPod, or through iTunes, rather than anywhere you'd like to.

As new technology unsettles old, those in power nevertheless find new ways to wring money from and continue their control over media culture. But the emerging web, with the peer-to-peer network at its very heart, promises to shake up the existing order, and at the center of this networked culture is the open sharing of information.

Video credit: Damian Finol (CC-by-nc-sa license)

Lawrence Lessig: I've been going around talking about the difference between what I refer to as Read Only and Read/Write culture. I was inspired to start talking about cultures like this by something I read by Tim Wu describing a story that happened exactly a hundred years ago.

In 1906 this man, a composer of awful, awful music, John Philip Sousa, went to this place - the United States congress - to talk about this technology - technology he referred to as the 'talking machine'.

Sousa was not a fan of talking machines. This is what he had to say:

''These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country.

When I was a boy... in front of every house in the summer evenings you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal chord left. The vocal chords will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.''

Now this picture I wanted to talk about - the idea of young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs. This is a picture of culture. It's a picture of culture we could call using modern computer technology Read/Write culture. It's a picture of culture where people participate in the creation and the recreation of their culture, in that sense it's Read/Write.

Sousa's fear was that the capacity of this Read/Write culture would be lost because of these 'infernal machines'. Machines would take it away, displace the practice, and in its place we have the mere image of Read/Write culture or what we call the Read Only culture. A culture where creativity is consumed but the consumer is not a creator. A culture which is top-down, where the vocal cords spread among the people have been lost. That was his fear.

If you look back to the twentieth century, at least in what we call the quote-unquote developed world, it's hard not to conclude that Sousa was right.

Photo credit: Jonan Basterra

Read/Write vs. Read-Only Culture

We see, then, the emergence of two cultures, the emergence of two Internets, two possible paths that may converge, in the best case scenario. On the one hand, there is the Read/Write culture, the culture that prefigures existing draconian intellectual property, and will hopefully go on to supersede it.

This is the culture of the blog, the mash up, the video sharing portal and the social network. It is the culture that has transformed the Internet from a series of static pages to a dynamic, living, breathing organism allowing for new levels of collaboration and creativity.

On the other hand, there is the Read-Only culture, the culture of DRM, of Trusted Computing and proprietary IPTV.

This is the culture of the passive consumer, the culture that would ideally make the internet a souped-up replica of television, piping media into the homes of docile, opiated consumers.

Which sounds more appealing to you?

Video credit: Damian Finol (CC-by-nc-sa license)

Lawrence Lessig: The critical thing to recognize is that there's not just one new culture that's out there, there's in fact two. Two very different cultures being produced by the Internet. These cultures are very important and importantly different.

The first is the new kind of Read Only culture. This culture has massively efficient technologies that facilitate the buying and consumption of culture produced only. It's ideal is to make it possible that at any time, anywhere you can buy culture you want - culture created elsewhere.

The poster child of this forum of cultural expression: the Apple corporation. Apple iTunes, ninety-nine cents, buy whatever song you want, play it on the iPod and only on the iPod. But if you do that - at least in America - you're guaranteed to be 'cool'.

And it's not just music now, videos too download to your iPod and it's not just Apple, Amazon's experimenting with pay-per-page for selling books, eBooks is experimenting with a pay-per-read way of selling books. The point is that all of these contexts are trying to find ways to increasing perfect the powers of copyright owners to control how people consume culture. That's the Read Only internet.

But at the same time, there's another internet being created by companies like these, companies of course that are interested in people consuming culture but not just in consuming - creating and sharing their creativity. You live in this space.

Copyright and the Two Cultures

Copyright as it exists today is firmly on the side of the Read-Only culture, but then, many of the laws in existence date from a time when there was nothing but Read-Only culture.

Undeniably, the times have changed. Copyright, if it is to let culture thrive and not simply preserve the interests of a few monopolistic media moguls, is going to have to adapt to the changing landscape. This doesn't need to mean throwing away the rights of artists to be treated fairly and to make a living from their creativity, far from it. Efforts such as Creative Commons are there to provide a powerful alternative to blanket copyright restrictions, so that work can be shared or distributed on terms agreeable to their creator.

Video credit: Damian Finol (CC-by-nc-sa license)

Lawrence Lessig: So there are two radically different cultures here, produced by the Internet. And of course, the point none of you don't know is that the law's attitude about these two very different cultures is radically different. The law of copyright: copyright law doesn't like the Read/Write culture. Copyright loves the Read Only culture.

Copyright supports the Read Only culture and weakens the Read/Write culture in the current way that it is regulated. With the current way that it is regulated, it's theft that to use culture in a digital context, because every single use produces a copy, which means every single use presumptively requires permission.

A free society shifts to a permission society merely because the platform through which we get access to our culture happens to make copies every time we access and use our culture. Now that conflict would be bad enough, but it's exacerbated by this war: the current war to protect the business model of the Read Only culture. And that war will have a consequence if allowed to run its course of killing the potential of the Read/Write culture.

And it's to resist this potential, to destroy what the Read/Write culture is, that many ---- fight to get a different balance in the law. Because the tools, or - in the terminology of the time - the weapons being deployed to fight the ''piracy'' that happens on the net, where in order to protect the Read Only culture the weapons of law and technology - new law and technology - Digital Rights Management technology will kill the potential here unless there is some resistance.

Video literacy and Self-Expression

Applying copyright laws focused on the dominance of text, in an age dominated by audio-visual media is clearly a step in the wrong direction. As the web makes the use of sound and (moving) images accessible to more and more people, the literacy of the age should not be measured in terms of the written word, but instead in the language of the era: video.

As video enables both a new ease of expression and dissemination of everyday people's messages, the final hurdle in terms of a vibrant, creative, video culture is the outmoded copyright legislation preventing people from legally sharing, remixing and adapting material online. Certainly, there are companies getting wise to the rich potential of the video remix. See JumpCut and EyeSpot's promotional remix contests as one great example of copyright holders cutting some slack, but this is still the exception rather than the rule.

For the next wave of video artists to truly thrive, their work needs to be legalized, and this could easily be done through - as one example - one of the creative commons remix licenses. In the meantime, a rich online underground goes on regardless of the risk of potentially life-destroying legal actions totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Video credit: Damian Finol (CC-by-nc-sa license)

Lawrence Lessig: This is the Read/Write culture that the Internet has produced. It is digital creativity, and of course, what you see here is nothing new in the capacity of film-makers or television studios. This has been around since television or film was born. What's new here are the tools for democratizing the capacity. For people to take sounds and images and the culture around them and remix them in a way that says something.

Now those of us that spend our lives as academics writing texts like to believe that people understand the world through the texts that we write. But we increasingly need to recognize that writing words is the latin of our modern time. And the ordinary language of the people, the vulgar language of the people, is not words, it's this - video and sound.

And what these technologies have done is spread the capacity for ordinary people to use this way of speaking - to speak more powerfully. These are the tools of creativity that are now tools of speech. Now the new potential to speak is the new potential to learn, is the new literacy in this age and it's reviving the capacity of this Read/Write culture.

The Creative Commons Alternative

One alternative to one-size-fits-all, blanket copyright is the application of Creative Commons licensing. Whenever you create a work - be it a piece of music, writing, video or whatever else - you are automatically granted by law a full, all-rights reserved copyright. That may sound appealing, until you realize that this makes it very difficult for anyone looking to use your work in a remix capacity to be sure they won't get a call from your lawyer.

Creative Commons was brought about to offer a series of alternative licenses to this blanket 'all rights reserved' so that you can choose exactly what others can an can't do with your work.

In the following video, created for Robin Good's recent post on Creative Commons, the Robin Good team remixed the audio track to the original Creative Commons licensed animation, putting our personal spin on this explanation of how Creative Commons is bringing about a new wave of creativity in the wake of Industrial era copyright law.

For your work to thrive out on the frontier of new media, applying restrictive copyright won't help you, but it might just hold you back. When you let go of the reigns and allow people to transform your work, you give it a new life and the power of viral communication. In this way, your message has a far greater chance of reaching far more people, people that will in turn be drawn back in your direction.

The Read/Write culture is transforming how we do media, and what media mean to us. To thrive in this dynamic, two-way, peer-governed universe of content means to tap into new business models, and to seek out new, creative alternatives. The Internet is by its very nature a remix culture, as copies link to copies of copies in a hall of mirrors - let's take advantage of all that this has to offer us as content producers.

Create it, share it, remix it.

Additional Resources

Lawrence Lessig and Michael Pick - [ Read more ]
Readers' Comments    
2006-12-14 08:57:14

Reg Crandall

The Winds of Change are here with The 9thxchange. This company will free the "choke hold" you describe that embraces the digital media industry at large.
The 9thXchange marketplace is the newest way to bring together buyers and sellers of digital content. The service dramatically reduces content piracy by offering the seller lifetime royalties -- even on exchanges between consumers. Moreover, the service accommodates all technology platforms, file types and creators.
Reg Crandall

posted by Michael Pick on Thursday, December 14 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

Search this site for more with 








    Curated by

    New media explorer
    Communication designer


    POP Newsletter

    Robin Good's Newsletter for Professional Online Publishers  



    Real Time Web Analytics