Ruminations on intellectual property law

I want to write a bit about a book on intellectual property law I stumbled across, and kudos to anyone who isn't bored by the end of the post (assuming you make it so far). Entitled Free Culture, the book was written by Lawrence Lessig, a renowned intellectual property scholar who has argued notable copyright cases (e.g. Eldred v. Ashcroft) in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Free Culture provides a clear and well-reasoned argument against taking a one-sided view of U.S. intellectual property (specifically, copyright) doctrine. Lessig carefully treads a legal minefield and persuasively argues that current copyright law occupies an extreme favoring the creative content providers.

What I found especially refreshing about Lessig's book is that he takes the time to explain why we should care whether our copyright regime favors content providers. For Lessig, it's not as simple as saying "Copyright enriches corporations; therefore, copyright is bad". Lessig does not shy away from discussing the effects of legislation such as the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, and, for an issue as controversial as copyright law, he is surprisingly effective at avoiding partisan polemic.

It is frustrating to encounter news stories that place the copyright debate at one of two extremes: You either support property rights (and by extension, copyright law as it stands today), or you support freedom of culture. I was unsurprised that Lessig made it clear that supporting a free culture does not necessitate dropping all property rights, as some copyright advocates claim. I was, however, surprised at how well-versed Lessig is with regard to the other extreme of copyright law: that of allowing unrestricted access to creative content, whether this access is for commercial or private use. Lessig is careful to warn of the pitfalls of a free-for-all copyright regime.

Although I find the book to be careless with some of its analogies. (e.g. at one point Lessig adopts the specious comparison of libraries with p2p software), I would love to see Free Culture more widely distributed to the legislators tasked with copyright reform. Lessig knows his stuff, and it's a shame that our legislators continue to pass harsher copyright laws without considering the impact of these laws on our culture.


annick said...

I really enjoyed this post, and yes, I made it to the end.

Oddly enough, this debate reminds me of recent scholarship on the notion of "The Author" when it comes to Medieval texts. Since the Medieval period predates Gutenberg, we have manuscripts (Latin for "written by hand") of texts, and sometimes these manuscripts differ from one another. This is because in addition to the author, there were copyists working on the texts, almost inevitably altering them, whether by mistake or on purpose.

Obviously, if we tried to apply intellectual property law to these texts, we would face quite the challenge. Further, it raises many questions concerning textual authority--should we be trying to find the "original" version of the Canterbury Tales or Le Roman de Renart? Does it matter?

digitally404 said...

I have no idea how artists are going to be able to protect their music/movies/whatever in this digital age.

We just need to learn to cope with the fact that information is so easily copied. It goes back to that whole you have an idea, I have an idea, if we exchange them we both have two ideas thing...

I'm not sure if this is going to be dangerous for us or not. If you look back at the history of patent laws: before they existed, people didn't see a 'profit' in invention. After patent laws, there was a huge burst in technological innovation. If we have no way of protecting music/movies, it might hurt us, perhaps slowdown cultural progress.

Anyways, I suppose this is what you're going to have to answer in Cambridge.

Good luck!

Eva said...

I don't think it's as simple as saying, "If no patent protection, no inventions." I mean, the lack of a robust patent law that defined the 19th century and early 20th century did not exactly prevent the technological revolution.