Review: Free Culture

I finally finished reading Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig a few weeks ago. With my impending exams, I decided I should wait to write a review. All-in-all this was probably one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. Normally I am not a fan of non-fiction, but this book tackled a subject that I was very interested in: freedom.

Lessig is a law professor from Stanford who has dedicated a large chunk of his career to copyright law. His interest in constitutional law led him to this statement:

The Congress shall have Power [. . .] To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries. –US Constitution (via Wikipedia)

The key phrase in that statement, for Lessig and many others, is the term “limited Times”. One of the most interesting parts of the book was the subject of public domain. I found it interesting mainly because before reading this book, I had almost no idea such a thing existed. See, I’m not very old (24), and I have very little experience with copyright. What I learned from Lessig in this book is that there’s a thing called a public domain. Any books (or other works) whose “copy right” has expired enters this domain. In the public domain, no one owns the rights to the book. Anyone is free to reproduce it, republish it, modify it, and make any other number of changes to it, and needs no one’s permission. Now, I had been vaguely familiar with the concept of public domain from things like Project Gutenberg, but I mainly thought that this was only for really old books (say over 100 years old). What I did not understand is that up until the beginning of the 1900’s, works entered the public domain fairly quickly after they were published. Before 1909, any published work could receive a copyright in the US if you filed the correct paperwork with the US Copyright Office. The term for the copyright was 14 years. After 14 years, the copyright was renewable for one additional 14 year term at the copyright owner’s discretion. Thus, after a maximum of 28 years, any published works entered the public domain. This short term of copyright allowed many adaptations of older works, for example Walt Disney was quickly able to make a film adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s famous Alice in Wonderland without securing any sort of permission from Carroll or his estate. The work had moved to the public domain. In fact, Disney and his company profited heavily from the adaptation of other works, including the creation of a well-known mouse named Mickey, who began as Steamboat Willie. Steamboat Willie was actually a parody of a comedic film by Buster Keaton. Disney made this parody and adapted it, making it a hit by being the first cartoon to have sound. How different would the world be today without Mickey Mouse? Yet if Disney had not incorporated the idea of adding sound to his cartoon (films had already begun using sound), Mickey’s long-lasting popularity may not have stuck around.

Ever since 1909, however, the US government has been incrementally increasing the term of copyrights. Where they started out at a maximum of 28 years, they are now up to 95 or 120 years or 70 years after the author’s death. Where before only certain works were even copyrightable and a specific request had to be made in order to obtain a copyright, now virtually anything imaginable can be copyrighted, and the copyright is inherent as soon as pen touches paper (no formal request needed). This change has caused an inordinate amount of work to be held out of the public domain, often with no good reason.

The great thing about this book is Lessig’s approach to presenting the problems and his arguments. He doesn’t resort to extreme ideas to counteract current copyright policy. He never argues to abolish copyright and make creativity a free-for-all. He believes that creators deserve and need the right to protect their work. He simply wants, as many want: a more prudent copyright system. One that balances the power of creators with that of the public good from works entering into the public domain. One that will promote a tradition of creativity that our country was founded on. He diffuses many counter-arguments by simply addressing the problem from the other side of the table. It makes his arguments rock solid. Plus, he uses a number of examples throughout the book to demonstrate how and why the law was different in the past and how it compares to today. Unfortunately, a problem like the one with copyright law does not garner people’s attention until they see the effects of it. Those who are not actively attempting to create something new from something old do not understand the importance of what a barrier this places on creativity and why that’s such a bad thing. Therefore, he also takes the time to demonstrate how crippling current copyright law is to creators.

Another of the main issues addressed by the book is piracy, most specifically music piracy. This is because the book was published when the ideas of copyright law were being brought under question in regards to file-sharing of music. Lessig also addresses these issues, specifically how the Internet has changed copyright law and how the corporate industries are attempting to preserve their profits by exploiting their copyrights under the guise of protecting the artists and creators. The RIAA and MPAA abhor the idea of a public domain. Unfortunately, they have gotten so big and have so much financial backing that they are able to pressure the government with what’s best for their bottom-line.

Overall, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it to everyone so that they can gain an understanding of the system in the US and how much it has changed for the worse over the past 100 years. Lessig’s examples perfectly illustrate the complicated situations that copyright law creates and how to understand them without a legal degree. My only minor complaint, which can’t really be attributed to Lessig, is that the law is very complicated sometimes and understanding the problems it presents can be a bit of a challenge. This makes it a book where you have to stop and think about things once or twice before you fully understand it, which may be a turn-off for some. The full contents of this book is available for free online via a Creative Commons license. However, it is a very good idea to buy it if you’d like to do more than browse.


4 thoughts on “Review: Free Culture

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