Culture Wants to Be Free*

Prof. Larry Lessig gave a superb talk, “Free Culture,” this evening at Harvard Law School. The talk is one of a series of special events Harvard Law professor and Berkman Center for Internet & Society director Terry Fisher organized for his 2013 Copyright course, in which I’m lucky enough to be participating. Like all the special events, Prof. Lessig’s talk was presented in person to Prof. Fisher’s Copyright law school class, via webinar to online course participants (including me), and to the public via archived webcast.

I took a few notes during Prof. Lessig’s engaging and stimulating talk, and this post is based on those notes. The full talk is available for viewing and is delightful. I urge you to watch it (and bypass my mediation and questionable note-taking skills).

Prof. Lessig proposes the twentieth century was in essence a “read-only” culture: We viewed, listened, read. The “aughts” [0_s], on the other hand, are a “read-write” culture, in which current technologies and social sharing enable exciting creative possibilities. Culture now involves not just creation, not just mixing, but also remixing. Consumers of cultural products are also its creators and sharers and remixers of others’ creations.

My interpretation of the proposition is that—like information—culture self-propagates, wants to be shared, or wants to be free.

The challenge to “free culture” is copyright law that is unsuitable to current platforms and technologies. Prof. Lessig points to uses of copyright-protected works that are free—not just “fair” (in US copyright law terms): reading a book, giving it away, selling it. What we see now, though, is use that goes from a free use to a regulated use, merely because the platform has changed. Think of the regulated or technologically-protected, licensed ebook. The same kind of free use isn’t possible. Says Prof. Lessig, a law with this result can’t be a sensible law.

Prof. Lessig suggests copyright, or its application, needs to change in practice and in law. In practice, voluntary licensing should be encouraged. (Recall Prof. Lessig’s role in founding Creative Commons.) Education can more easily support legal use. For example, popular search engines should help users—think students working on school projects—find free and CC-licensed resources to enable legal remixing.

In law, Prof. Lessig suggests formalities once requisite in US law could return to some extent. The idea is so creators can acquire copyright, or not, with intent, and users can easily determine copyright ownership, if any, of specific works. And he seeks a remake of copyright law for simplicity: As it stands, creators or remixers often are lawbreakers. If the law is going to regulate fifteen-year-olds, he says, fifteen-year-olds need to be able to understand it.

Prof. Lessig details additional suggestions and ideas, and the talk, like the others in the series, includes an interesting question and answer segment. I encourage you to watch and enjoy and, perhaps, under the recording’s Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike 2.5 License, you can also remix.

(*With apologies to Stewart Brand, John Perry Barlow and Larry Lessig)


  1. Unfortunately, the video won’t play for me right now so I can’t watch Lessig’s talk. I’ll give it a try later.

    To what extent though is the loss of rights that we’re used to having (the ability to re-sell a book etc.) a result of contract law as well as copyright law? We never used to have to enter into contracts to get access to copyrighted works. However, often with new platforms , that’s exactly what we do. And these contracts can contain prohibitions on activities that copyright law might be perfectly fine with.

    It feels like any attempt to really address this problem would require limitations on the terms that creators can include in these contracts. And that’s going to be a mighty tough balancing act.

  2. Thanks, Matt.

    It looks like the link was to the livestream only and, based on past practice with the special events, it should be replaced with a YouTube archived version soon. I’ll update the post when I see a link to the archived video. Thank you for that heads-up.

    I agree with you: The restrictions on use in this example are a result of contractual arrangements (licenses). I took his point to be that many uses that were contemplated to be “free” under current law are now “regulated” uses—whether that regulation arises by way of private arrangements or the statute itself—and this reflects the inadequacy of current law to modern media and platforms. Annual licenses for some ebooks in library collections are a good example of that proposition. For many ebooks, we need to keep paying if we want to keep lending.

  3. Update: I just noticed this note on Prof. Fisher’s CopyrightX special events listing page:

    Roughly one week after each event, the link to the webcast for each event will be changed to a link to a recording of the event.

    So in about a week the page I’ve linked in this comment will contain the link to the archived video of Prof. Lessig’s talk. I’ll update the links embedded in the post as well.

    – Kim