Lessig on the limits of copyright (Crossposted at CT)

This is my second report on last week’s Creative Commons conference. Lessig’s closing lecture was given in the Banco court of the Queensland Supreme Court (very plush – those lawyers don’t stint themselves) and was focused on traditional copyright issues . For Brisbane readers, an interesting tidbit titbit was that we haven’t seen OUTFOXED: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism because neither the Courier-Mail nor the Australian (both Murdoch-owned) would carry more than minimal ads for it. One of the costs of being in a one-newspaper town.

The main point of the lecture was a historical survey of the relentless extension of copyright, along with some discussions of a failed attempt to stop this in the case of Eldred vs Ashcroft. This case is notable for the fact that, as has happened before, the economics profession almost unanimously supported the losing side. As Lessig argued copyright has been extended in length, scope and force to the extent that nowadays virtually everything is copyright, virtually forever.

Given that the defenders of unlimited copyright are interested mainly in protecting the merchandise markets for Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh, it’s often struck me that the sensible political resolution would be to concede defeat on this point, and seek to liberalise copyright for the 99 per cent of literary and artistic output that doesn’t have such huge monopoly value. One step in this direction, which Lessig discussed in his talk, is the case of Kahle v. Ashcroft which challenges changes to U.S. copyright law that have created a large class of “orphan works.” Orphan works are books, films, music, and other creative works which are out of print and no longer commercially available, but which are still regulated by copyright.

As I’ve said previously, in the end, I don’t think either law or technology will be decisive here. Rather it’s that the value of being freely connected to a huge network will exceed any benefits that can be obtained by gating off a particular part of the network and demanding payment for access. After all, the reason we have an open Internet is that it drove proprietary networks out of business or else absorbed them. Attempts to create “walled gardens” within the Internet haven’t been abandoned entirely, but they haven’t prospered either.

In this context, the most exciting feature of the conference was the launch of the Australian version of the Creative Commons licence. Widespread voluntary adoption of this kind of license will render measures like the extension of copyright irrelevant. In this context, the version of the license I particularly like the “Share Alike” version, which resembles the GNU public licence in requiring derivative users to adopt a similarly open licence. The greater the volume of material with this kind of licence that is out there, the greater the incentive to make use of it, even at the cost of forgoing commercial copyrights. Since most commercial culture depends ultimately on unpaid appropriation of older material, the effects will be cumulative (or, in today’s popular jargon, ‘viral’)[1].

As I mentioned, I was struck by the quality of Lessig’s presentation. He’s a great speaker and I was so struck by the elegance of his minimalist Powerpoint presentations that I got him to send them to me . He mostly uses a white typewriter font on black background with just one or a few words per slide. In the spirit of remix, I plan to see how much of this look and feel I can appropriate for my own work[2].

update By coincidence, just after I finished this the latest London Review of Books arrived, complete with a lengthy article on the monopolistic practices of the London booksellers in the 18th century, a point also addressed by Lessig. Unfortunately, the article itself is subscriber-only

fn1. This reminds me that my CC licence got lost in the shift from Movable Type. Another job to be done.

fn2. I’ve just decided to make the shift from Powerpoint to Keynote and Lessig mentioned he was doing the same. I’ll be trawling the web for examples.

Monday Message Board

It’s time for the regular Monday message board, where you are invited to post your thoughts on any topic. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please. I probably won’t have anything more to say about the Labor leadership, but I’d be interested in the thoughts of others.

Follow-up on the tsunami appeal

I’ve now received confirmation from everyone who pledged money to the tsunami appeal with a total of $2455. As I mentioned, the generosity of the cosponsors meant that the appeal raised more than twice as much as I had planned to give myself, while using only half of the money I’d allocated. I gave the rest to the UNICEF Darfur appeal.I plan another appeal on similar lines when I think the time is appropriate.

In the meantime, if you’d like to help a needy (and excellent) blogger, Gary Farber would be a worthy recipient. The topic of prioritising aid is bound to come up, so I’ll address it briefly. Most of us, even the relatively generous, give so little of our incomes in charity that the real alternative is an item of personal consumption rather than an alternative charitable object. The same is true for national governments.

My sincere thanks again to everyone who helped with this and especially to those who dug deep into their pockets.

Lessig on text and image

As I mentioned, earlier this week, I attended a Creative Commons conference at QUT in Brisbane, including the launch of the Creative Commons licence for Australia. The main speaker was Larry Lessig, who gave two papers and joined a panel discussion as well. Lessig is a great speaker with really effective presentations, a point on which I hope to post more later. There was a lot of food for thought, and I’ll start with the opening presentations

In this talk, the central idea was remix, taking bits and pieces from the existing culture and recombining them to produce something new. My summary of the core argument

  1. text is the past, video and audio are the future
  2. the set of rights surrounding text has always allowed for a lot of remix, including direct copying for fair use, parody and so on
  3. because of digital rights management technology and strong IP, the current trend is to suppress remix for video and audio, thereby depriving our culture of one of its historic sources of validity

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Copenhagen review

Today’s Fin ReView section (subscription only) runs my review of Bjorn Lomborg’s new book. Regular readers won’t be surprised to find a lot of criticisms of the Copenhagen Consensus project that produced the book. But I found a fair bit to praise as well. The review, pretty lengthy, is over the fold. Comments appreciated.
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