Counting the cost of strong IP laws

Your first question about this book might go something along the lines of: Why should I pay $27 (plus shipping) when smart people have already released it free in heaps of digital formats?

Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity by Lawrence Lessig (The Penguin Press, about $27 from online booksellers or free from free-culture.cc)

Your first question about this book might go something along the lines of: Why should I pay $27 (plus shipping) when smart people have already released it free in heaps of digital formats (www.free-culture.cc/remixes)?

Good question. Perhaps you believe in Lawrence Lessig's mission and that of the Creative Commons project, which licenses the free, attributed, use of material (funds from the book apparently go to the project). Perhaps you just want a nicely bound book for your library. Perhaps you accept Lessig, a professor at Stanford Law School, is no hypocrite and so puts his money where his mouth is. Even it you don't, it'll cost you nothing to read this entertaining and occasionally scary book.

Free Culture is a more focused, measured argument of the issues around preserving and extending digital creativity than Lessig's earlier book, The Future of Ideas, though his critics would probably argue there's still too much of the ad hominem in it (just look at the subtitle). Hey ho. Lessig certainly takes considerable time to tease apart the binary standpoints of those who would rather control all creative material via All-Rights-Reserved copyright and those who would like everything free (as in beer as well as speech).

In between the megapixels of rhetoric from copyright champions are frightening real tales such as the well-meaning student who was hounded by music companies for his life savings, the implications on innovation where every creative act involves clearing potentially copyright material, the ironically pirate beginnings of much popular culture, and an analysis of what file sharers might really use their downloads for. Recent reports appear to back up the suggestion that file sharing of music has at best a negligible effect on CD sales, and may even benefit music companies to the extent that they are using P2P monitoring services to figure out which songs to market the hardest.

Still, Lessig states several times that straight-out piracy is wrong. But he posits that a Read-Only culture is what we will get if we don't curb the growing excesses of intellectual property law and thinking. IP is property, but it's a monopoly property right granted for a limited time to encourage creativity and not to stifle it for generations for the benefit of large corporations staffed with offices of lawyers. Echoing the thoughts of Ed Felten, Lessig says the freedom to tinker is essential for the widest expression and learning, a freedom that's being eroded or denied with the help of technology like DRM. But it's also technology that got us in this mess, for instance making digital copies instantly available and databases much more valuable.

He's a high-minded sort, so it's hardly surprising that at times in Free Culture Lessig sounds a bit down in the mouth. After all, he lost his court battle to have the latest US copyright term extension declared unconstitutional. Still, judging from the creative response to this book -- text reworkings, Flash, e-books, audio versions -- and the level of support for the issues suggested in weblogs like Copyfight, I doubt Lessig is anywhere near finished yet.

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