Review of Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy by Lawrence Lessig
Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy
by Lawrence Lessig
I'd recommend Remix to anyone who creates content, whether as part of their day job or simply as a hobby in their basement. Lawrence Lessig takes the complicated issues surrounding modern copyright and explains them in terms laypeople can comprehend. Moreover, he makes a compelling argument from an economic standpoint as to why less copyright could lead to more profit.
My favourite quotation from this book is:
Copyright law has got to give up its obsession with "the copy." The law should not regulate "copies" or "modern reproductions" on their own. It should instead regulate uses—like public distributions of copies of copyrighted work—that connect directly to the economic incentive copyright law was intended to foster.
Lessig succinctly reveals the flawed premise from which most corporations approach the concept of copyright in our digital age. Thanks to the Internet, it's now possible to distribute an infinite number of copies of a digital work. Regulating that work like it's a physical object doesn't work, as we saw empirically through the failed experiment of Digital Rights Management (DRM). Focusing on copying is a doomed tactic. Focusing on usage is a much better way to exercise one's control over one's content.
Never does Lessig advocate the abolition of copyright. I've often struggled with the very existence of this legal quagmire we've constructed. As a content creator in general, I am happy to release as much of my content as possible under a Creative Commons license. I love to let people benefit from my content by reusing it wherever possible. Yet, as a writer, I'm reluctant to do that for everything I produce, since traditional publishing still requires (at least in some cases) a traditional, all rights reserved copyright. So either I must accept copyright in some form, or I must abandon any hope of being published through "traditional" means.
Lessig's stance reassures me that there is nothing wrong with the concept of copyright itself--indeed, so-called "free" licenses, like Creative Commons and "copyleft" are also copyright, just of a different breed--the core dilemma we face is that copyright has become distorted during the twentieth century by increasingly restrictive regulation. Lessig argues that we need new legislation to remove our copyright quagmire and update our laws to reflect current cultural values. But how effective is his argument?
Having never read his previous works, I was in the dark regarding Lessig's rhetorical style, so I went into Remix with no expectations and an am unable to compare it to his other arguments. I found Remix both compelling and accessible. What truly surprised me was the types of premises Lessig used to advance his argument. Although both points of legality and appeals to ethos appear in Remix, Lessig's primary concern is one of economics. Would less restrictive copyright be better or worse for the economy? Is it still possible to derive value (i.e., make money) off a work with a less restrictive copyright? Lessig's answer is an unequivocal yes.
I admire this strategy more than I admire the argument itself, for I think it will go a long way toward convincing economists, lawyers, and business people--anyone concerned with making money from their content or the content of their clients--that less copyright isn't as scary as it seems. Remix is not the manifesto of a copyright revolutionary attempting to storm the Bastille of commerce and tear down the walls of sane legislation. Rather, Lessig points out that sometimes more control is less desirable--for instance, it can often bring unwanted liability to the copyright holder or stifle possible opportunities for fan-based revenue. Although making money is always a concern, it isn't necessarily the only concern--sometimes it's better to build customer loyalty or cultivate what Lessig terms a "sharing economy" than just reap profits.
I won't attempt to summarize all of Lessig's arguments here. Remix is short enough--perhaps my largest complaint about the book--and well-organized enough that anyone should be able to muddle through, and anyone with interest in these issues will derive enjoyment from it. Those of us who agree with Lessig's perspective are lucky to have such an eloquent and sharp voice for remixing. As for our opponents--well, if Remix doesn't persuade you, I at least hope that it opens your eyes as to why why some people promote remixing, beyond a twisted desire to steal profit from other content creators. Copyright certainly isn't a black and white issue; Remix succeeds in showing that it doesn't need a black and white answer.