The Bad Science And Greed Behind The “Intellectual Property Inhibiting Innovation” Argument. Part 4

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.

Of all the digital ink that has been spilt over Lessig’s pseudo-intellectual tropes,  not one writer has noted that Lessig is proposing a solution to a problem that does not exist.  Again why is it left to a moderately successful indie rocker to do the job of serious journalists? Where are the grownups?

 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.

About Dr. David C Lowery

Platinum selling singer songwriter for the bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven; platinum selling producer; founder of pitch-a-tent records; founder Sound of Music Studios; platinum selling music publisher; angel investor; digital skeptic; college lecturer and founder of the University of Georgia Terry College Artists' Rights Symposium.

6 thoughts on “The Bad Science And Greed Behind The “Intellectual Property Inhibiting Innovation” Argument. Part 4

  1. David,

    I read your very cogent and long letter to Emily, and I admire your campaign and convictions. It is downright amusing and often painful to read some of the many moronic comments by people trying to rationalize stealing. Thank G-d for the police force and the criminal justice system – can you imagine what our world would be like without them? You could never safely leave your house(and, yes, I’m aware that some neighborhoods are like that right now).

    A few bullet points before I continue:

    – Taking ANYTHING from somebody against his/her will constitutes theft, no matter how easy it is to do.

    – Denial is a powerful drug.

    – Artists are not owed a living wage by anyone; however, if they charge for their art, and you benefit from it, there should be compensation(look up the MUZAK company, which plays all the music you hear in retail stores, hotel lobbies, chain restaurants, and yes, elevators).

    – While we all love the internet and consider it essential, it has been a total game changer for retail stores, newspapers, and the music industry. The music industry has suffered the worst, largely because when they were behind the eight ball, they still believed they were in a position of strength. The truth is that they were never weaker, and it now seems like they lost so much ground that they’ll never catch up.

    Having said all this, I still have one simple question: What are my exact rights when I purchase a song or album? If indeed, I have purchased the right to listen to it whenever I wish, with whoever I wish, then several record labels owe me big time.

    You see, back in 1970, I purchased an 8-track of a Beatles album. When that format became obsolete, I believe that the label should have sent me a cassette of the same album for no additional charge. Remember, I already purchased the right to privately listen to it. And then, when CD’s became the medium of choice, I again should receive that CD free of charge. Why the hell should I have to pay over one hundred dollars and counting just to get the content I ALREADY PAID FOR in a newer format? This is also morally wrong, but try getting Mercury,RCA, or any label to keep you updated for no charge. Good luck!

    You think I should pay for music – fine. Then give me the rights I pay for.

  2. So, OK, Lessig is secretly working on behalf of Google. Applying the same logic, one can say that this blog is secretly working for Rupert Murdoch. And now it’s for the reader to decide which is the greater good — or the lesser evil. I’m fairly confident to predict on which side the majority will come down. So, be careful when twisting and simplifying arguments, you might shoot yourself in the foot.

    • Actually there is a long history of Google supporting Lessig’s causes starting with $2 million to Stanford, $1.5 million to Creative Commons (that the public knows about). The entire “Remix” theory of the “hybrid economy” is an apologia for commercial interests profiting themselves from “sharing economies” (which was so obviously flawed that comedian Steven Colbert took Lessig apart on it in a very funny show). We hear it was disclosed this week that close relation Public Knowledge gets money from Google, EFF gets money from Google, the Berkman Center gets money from Google, shall I go on? It’s not particularly secret. Also read Rob Levine’s longread (aka book) about Google’s influence. This is not speculation. Then there’s the money from organized gambling

  3. Does Lessig argue that software copyrights should be reformed? Or hardware patents? Because these seem to me to be stifling innovation just as much as copyright protections for the intellectual property of artists. Has he come out against the flood of lawsuits and counter lawsuits for copyright infringement that all the major tech companies are filing against each other? Most importantly, is his own work copyrighted? Because if it is … that’s all you really need to know to judge Lessig’s ideas.

  4. Not that this has anything to do with the current subject, but when speaking of innovation, two topics usually have to be mentioned. First, small businesses are responsible for an incredible amount of innovation. These are cases where an individual or small group risks all their money and invest all their time. (I’ve worked for these types of companies for most of my life). And they’re types of companies that should be rewarded for their risk. The problem is that if we don’t reward risk, then we don’t get innovation. Second, because innovation implies risk, it also implies failure. And some of the most spectacular failures of the past are just as important to innovation as are the success stories. And those failures significantly outnumber the successes.

    Now, applying this to music… Music is an extremely risky as a business proposition. It requires significant resources, hard work and extreme amounts of time. The general public has a misperception about musicians and the music industry (“money for nothing, get your kicks for free”). But the fact is that most successful musicians have countless hours involved (with the opportunity costs that this implies). And the production and marketing and manpower required to have a “successful” career is very resource intensive. Now, most people look at this and say that only the “lucky” ones make it. Well, that can be true… but the same is true of all risk taking ventures – most of the competition fails, just as all entrepreneurs.

  5. Hi David,

    Again apologies for posting on several of your sites. Just hoping for discourse.

    My name is John Pasagiannis, and I am a clinical psychologist and musician. I have a sub-specialty in substance misuse issues and utilize a harm reduction approach in the treatment of these issues. I have been following your posts for some time now and have come to admire your honesty and bravery. I also have a vested interest as I continue to release music and have close friendships within the music community.

    The implication from a mental health perspective is pretty clear: if musicians can’t afford to support themselves through the medium that is so closely intertwined with their sense of self, identity and place in society, the rates of anxiety, depression, substance misuse, and health issues within the music community will most likely soar.

    For that reason, I think any discussion of the current music business model should include the effects of the new music model as promoted by TUNECORE, CD BABY, SPOTIFY, etc., on the real lives of those in the community.

    I would love to get this message out and would welcome any support, ideas, etc. from you. Perhaps a panel on these issues during CMJ or some other conference.

    John P. Pasagiannis, Ph.D.
    Clinical Psychologist

    PS: I am also involved at The Center for Optimal Living with Dr. Andrew Tatarsky, a major force in the harm reduction

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