Judith Tizard meets with copyright expert Lawrence Lessig

Minister of Commerce receives briefing on copyright in the digital age

Minister of Commerce Judith Tizard, under pressure from internet service providers over several provisions in New Zealand's new copyright law, met with technology activist and copyright expert Lawrence Lessig yesterday over lunch.

After a public lecture at Auckland University last night, Lessig told Computerworld he and the minister had a useful conversation and he was impressed by the openness Tizard has to addressing the problems of copyright in the digital age.

He said Tizard did not signal any changes to the new regime, which mostly came into effect at the beginning of this month, but did recognise there was more to talk about and standard solutions were not adequate.

Lessig, one of the creators of the Creative Commons regime, addressed issues of creativity and its criminalisation under standard approaches to copyright enforcement seen so far. He said these approaches are totally unsuitable to the digital age when use and copying are effectively the same action. Such approaches threaten to replace our "read/write" culture, in which people create and recreate culture, with "read/read" culture, he said.

Lessig (picture by Joi Ito) equated today's war on copyright infringement with earlier wars on alcohol seen during the prohibition years of the 1920s. Such approaches were eventually abandoned when it was realised the costs, such as the encouragement of organised crime, were greater than the benefits

Lessig says in the past, creativity was based on taking, using and building upon other people's words, mostly without permission. To use this material as a quote, with attribution, has always been accepted.

"Imagine if you have to ask permission to quote," he said. "It's absurd."

Lessig says copyright is an essential protection in that by restricting speech you encourage the production of more free speech. But what makes sense in one period makes no sense in another.

He says amateur and professional creativity needs to be distinguished and any new regime needs to encourage both.

New platforms, such as YouTube, have recreated read/write culture in the form of remixes, where people take existing works and edit them together in new forms. Lessig says this is a new vulgar language, quoting to make something powerful. It is a global "call and response" conversation, where people around the world contribute to new forms of expression.

The ability to do this has existed for some time but the technology to do so has been democratised.

"It is what literacy means in the 21st century," he says.

But this kind of quoting requires permission first, because the acts of quoting and of copying are the same thing. The architectures of copyright and of new technology have collided and resulted in a radical change in scope and reach of copyright law, he said.

"Copying is as common as breathing in the digital age," he said. We need to get over our obsession with copying and focus on the use made of the material.

Now read/write, formerly accepted, comes with a presumption of illegality and much copyright enforcement is effectively criminalising our children, he said.

We need, he said, to recognise there are many forms of creativity and different forms of protection are needed for them, not the one model, "Hollywood's model", applying to them all.

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