For some time now the web/technology lobby has been arguing that copyright and other forms of intellectual property rights are inhibiting innovation. And if you don’t actually think about it you might agree. I mean it sounds sort of like the argument against government over-regulation. Having to get permission from all those IP owners. And then having to pay them all? what a hassle!
But is this really true?
The Hybrid Economy/Remix argument against copyright and how it’s inhibiting innovation.
This is from the home page for Lawrence Lessig’s book “Remix”.
For more than a decade, we’ve been waging a war on our kids in the name of the 20th Century’s model of “copyright law.” In this, the last of his books about copyright, Lawrence Lessig maps both a way back to the 19th century, and to the promise of the 21st. Our past teaches us about the value in “remix.” We need to relearn the lesson. The present teaches us about the potential in a new “hybrid economy” — one where commercial entities leverage value from sharing economies. That future will benefit both commerce and community. If the lawyers could get out of the way, it could be a future we could celebrate.
The academic Lawrence Lessig is the intellectual leader of the Web 2.0/ Hybrid Economy/Remix movement. Lessig argues that there is a store of value and innovation locked up by “antiquated” copyright laws. The idea is that if everyone could freely “remix” others work innovation would blossom and great value would be released. In particular he states that then “commercial entities would leverage value from the sharing economies.”
Or as Stephen Colbert smartly put it to Lessig himself .
Colbert: Well let’s see (laughing)…so the hybrid economy is where everybody else does the work and Flickr makes all the money?
This in a nutshell is the main problem with Lessig’s formulation. He would weaken copyright so that corporations could make money from artist’s copyrights (and the efforts of the “remixers”) without compensating them! Does this sound fair to you?
I’ve been challenged before on this exact same statement. The challenge is always “but Lessig isn’t against compensating artists and copyrights.” And they point to some statement where Lessig says he “supports” copyright. But the kind of “copyright” Lessig supposedly supports is quite different from the rules of copyright that the rest of the world has agreed upon for hundreds of years. It doesn’t really protect artists from unauthorized exploitation so it’s not really copyright at all. It’s like saying that you like “guacamole” but then you have your own private recipe for “guacamole” that is actually creme brule but you just you call it “guacamole”.
And it is pretty clear that what he really means by “remix economy” is a system that allows commercial interests to profit from the work of artists, professional and amateur. There is nothing groovy, idealistic or progressive about it. It’s unpaid exploitation for corporate profit.
That is why Lessig takes great care in creating a public face of being against corporate exploitation and for some ill defined cultural eden. Yet all his theories benefit corporations the most. Especially YouTube and Google. After a while, you start to believe that he’s way too clever by half for this to be unintentional. I believe that he presents himself as friend of artists when he is actually a bitter, bitter foe. Why would he choose the language he uses? “Hollywood should get over it” or “In support of Piracy”. He telegraphs his contempt towards those that create art in virtually all his essays and books. It’s often seems personal. Maybe it’s like the Saturday Night Live skit that “explains” Albert Goldman’s hatred of John Lennon. In the skit Goldman was The Beatles trombone player until Lennon fired him. Was Lessig kicked out of a ska band? Did “hollywood” kick his ass in a couple court fights? Is that what all this is about?
This reminds me of the classic book by Richard Condon and film directed by John Frankenheimer, The Manchurian Candidate. Lessig is “for copyright” but secretly he is on a secret mission to destroy copyright and impoverish artists. This is why I refer to Lessig as The Manchurian Candidate. And here is the rather obvious explanation:
Everything that Lessig proposes about the Hybrid/Remix economy is possible right now under the current copyright regimen. Except for one small item. The only difference between Lessig’s ideal hybrid economy and the copyright protected creator economy? In Lessig’s proposed hybrid economy corporations would not have to seek permission of artists to use their work or even compensate them. That is why he wants to weaken copyright. (Although I would not support it) I could understand if he wanted to create a system of collectivized ownership for state controlled exploitation, but he doesn’t want to do that. He wants to specifically collectivize artist’s works for corporate exploitation.
The “remix” economy already exists and is doing just fine. It’s been around for at least 35 years. And it did not require us “mapping a way back to the 19th century”
You say, “What the remix economy already exists?!!!”
Yes. Have you ever heard of Hip Hop?
Hip Hop already has a working system for the permissions that Lessig says is being inhibited by copyright law—it’s called a sample license. The one main difference is that sampling licensing in Hip Hop is generally more fair than the corporate exploitation proposed by Lessig. This is fundamentally because it starts by respecting rights. The permissions conventions regarding sampling at least try to treat all stakeholders fairly. Hip Hop is the most popular form of music on the planet. It has produced great innovation and value. And it has done it while generally respecting artist’s rights and taking the time to get a license. Further–copyright has forced corporations to share the wealth among the independent writers, producers, beat makers and sampled artists. If we adopted Lessig’s view of copyright, there would be nothing stopping a giant music conglomerate from turning themselves into a Web 2.0 “remix” site and start paying the artists nothing! Yes you read that right, nothing.
Seriously, has anyone ever thought this through?
So if it’s so obvious to everyone that intellectual property by rewarding creators actually encourages innovation instead of inhibiting it why is the National Academy of Science sponsoring a study on intellectual property and innovation?
Greed. Plain and simple. Very narrow commercial interests would make more money if we weakened copyright or just plain got rid of IP. At lest in the short term. Never mind that the long term effect on the US economy would be disastrous. These same commercial interests are enormously rich and powerful. They are able to manipulate the political and academic discussions through the money they funnel to political advocacy groups and academic institutions. Just look at the list of corporate sponsors to this “scientific study” if you don’t believe what I’m saying.
And besides, should scientific studies have commercial sponsors?
Yes it would be fantastic for a very narrow set of commercial companies if they didn’t have to pay anything to movie studios, television networks or musicians to use their works. Google would be able to make billions by servicing ads to the no-longer illegal file sharing. Heck they wouldn’t have to play charades with the “mail order brides” (a/k/a Human Trafficking) sites. Kim Dotcom wouldn’t be in jail and he would be able to buy more yachts and pet giraffes, maybe even a Dornier Alpha Jet. A little of that money might even trickle out to exotic game breeders and yacht manufacturers, maybe even NASA.
But this is not innovation. This is stealing from the creators—in one of the most parasitic ways I can think of.
Sadly few people really seem to understand innovation anymore. Innovation isn’t just the “giant leaps forward”. Yes the steam engine, electricity, the internal combustion engine, wireless communications and even the Internet were all great innovations. But much of the innovation that creates wealth and increases productivity are in the tiny improvements or thousands of small new uses—remember the wah-wah pedal before Jimi Hendrix? Innovation often atomizes after giant leaps forward. Thousands of small corollaries to the big innovation are rooted out by small teams and individuals in the shadows of the original breakthrough. For instance the unsexy project management software industry probably has probably contributed more to our GDP than Facebook.
Much of the handwringing about innovation is really unnecessary. Innovation is still occurring. It is likely accelerating. Many in the tech industry are wrongly picturing what innovation looks like. They are looking for big breakthroughs like driverless cars or spaceships. Or they are looking for things that look just like the innovations of the last decade. Maybe we’ve wrung all the great innovations out of “social” and web 2.0 websites. But it’s likely somewhere someone is creating a little app that is gonna revolutionize police work and save communities billions of dollars a year. Or something like that. Innovation is not always sexy.
Or sometimes innovation that creates great wealth is whimsical. Video gaming anyone? Angry Birds? It’s somewhere much farther up the hierarchy of needs but still adds great value to our GDP. Many miss that innovation is occurring in areas that people now regard as luxuries but in a few decades may be seen as necessities. May I remind you that TV, mobile phones and high speed internet access were all once regarded as luxuries.
I read a great blog recently by Nicholas Carr on this very subject. He proposed a Hierarchy of Innovation. It’s well worth reading and I have to say his blog helped crystalize my thinking on this topic. (Thanks Nicholas!)
We should be careful when listening to Silicon Valley on innovation. While they were the most recent source of “giant leaps forward” they may have taken their technological playbook as far as it will go. Their handwringing about innovation is actually more likely their own existential crisis, not a problem with innovation in general in this country. Before we throw out intellectual property-something which has time and time again encouraged innovation -we should consider that this argument is largely coming from Silicon Valley and their Manchurian Candidates.