Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy

“What does it mean to society when a whole generation is raised as criminals?” This is the question that intellectual property guru and “copyleft” leader Lawrence Lessig asks in his new book, Remix. He’s building on a point he first raised in his influential volume Free Culture: if we are going to declare a “war on piracy,” we need to be prepared for collateral damage. The blowback that Lessig explored in Free Culture was felt by traditional U.S. culture, with its modes of open exchange (libraries distributing books, for instance, as well as teenagers making mix tapes) and its reliance on a growing public domain to spur creativity.

In this book, Lessig identifies victims even closer to home: our children. “How,” Lessig asks, is the war on piracy “changing how they think about normal, right-thinking behavior?” The creative practices of today’s youth include a range of activities — file sharing, most notoriously, but also the production of mashups — that are illegal under the current copyright regime, but criminalization is having little success as a deterrent. Instead, the focus on “piracy” is changing our relationship to the law itself, which has come to seem arbitrary and unfair, and it’s hampering creative and educational uses of new technologies. It’s time to consider, Lessig argues, whether the costs of this war are too high.

As recently as 100 years ago, the majority of the music that Americans heard was that which they made themselves, or which others around them made. Prior to the popularization of the player piano, followed by the gramophone and the radio, music had to be performed live, and for that reason, an amateur culture of music making flourished. The spread of technologies for the recording and playback of music thus didn’t democratize music itself but rather the ability of the masses to hear professionals play. The end result, as Lessig points out, was in fact highly anti-democratic, replacing an amateur culture with a professional culture and transforming much of the populace from producers into consumers. As music (along with other artistic practices) became increasingly professionalized, it also became increasingly subject to ideas of ownership, with the result that amateur uses of music’s professional products became increasingly restricted.

However, many of those amateur uses of professional culture were restricted throughout the 20th century, not just by legislation but also by the scarcity and cost of the technologies involved. Since few people had access to recording facilities, for instance, the unauthorized reproduction of music was a fairly limited affair. What copyright controlled, for much of its existence, was thus the professional reproduction of cultural texts — usually in the form of books and other printed matter — and copyright law was understood to restrict publishers from releasing competing versions of texts, rather than restricting consumers in their uses of those texts.

The situation has of course changed, and changed radically, in the age of the computer, as the technologies of cultural production are available on an increasing number of desktops throughout the country. On the positive side, this change has the potential to transform a professionalized, read-only culture back into a widespread amateur read-write culture. On the negative side, however, computer technologies have caused the jurisdiction of copyright law to spread from producers to consumers and thereby increasingly restrict the uses we can make of the culture we participate in.

As Lessig has explored since 2000’s Code, the potential for control over our uses of new technologies exists not just at the level of legislation, what he has referred to as “east-coast code,” but also at the level of the technologies themselves, in the form of “west-coast code,” programming that permits only certain behaviors. Digital rights management (DRM) technologies have the potential to dictate restrictions on the uses of media materials that vastly exceed the dictates of law. Copyright law, for instance, does not prevent the legitimate owner of a copy of a book from reading a book multiple times, or from lending that book to a friend; it only restricts the owner from republishing or otherwise copying that book. DRM, however, can restrict how, where, and when we read or listen to the materials we have purchased, and can prevent any kind of lending — not to mention the quotation practices that have become a part of remix culture.

Through DRM and the advancement of copyright law, the war on piracy has shifted its focus from the illegal reproduction and distribution for profit of texts, films, and music — something we can all probably agree should be controlled — instead leveling its sights on the uses consumers make of media texts, the sharing and remix of such texts by fans, the kind of amateur creativity that had been at the heart of American culture prior to the twentieth century. But the result has not been a reduction in illegal file sharing but instead an increase in violation of the law; as Lessig points out, “Even the good become pirates in a world where the rules seem absurd.”

Media corporations are actively resisting the spread of read-write culture, in no small part because their economic model rests on keeping their products contained within a read-only framework. A significant part of what’s revolutionary in Remix, setting it apart from his earlier work, is Lessig’s clear argument that this is a short-sighted mode of profit maximization destined to backfire. After a thorough exploration, in the first half of the book, of the differences between read-only and read-write cultures, and of how these cultures might support and extend rather than threatening one another, Lessig turns his attention in the second half of the book to the conflicts between the two different economic modes that undergird professional and amateur culture, one based on the commercial transaction and the other based on sharing. Lessig argues for the potential of a new economic model, one neither wholly commercial nor wholly based in sharing but instead “hybrid,” in which the desires of the consumer and the enterprise work together to create value. Lessig points to a number of successful examples, including craigslist, Flickr, YouTube, and Slashdot, all of which combine a mode of community-based production with corporate services. “You create value by giving people what they want,” Lessig points out; “you create good by designing what you’re offering so that people getting what they want also give something back to the community. No one builds hybrids on community sacrifice.”

Such hybrid economies, built upon both corporate and public creativity, may best enable today’s youth to flourish, feeding their desires to produce as well as consume media texts. Lessig defuses the usual claim made against amateur culture — that most of what it produces is bad — by pointing to the fact that many of us produce bad writing, and yet the teaching of writing is still considered fundamental: “As bad writing is not an argument against writing, bad remix is not an argument against remix. Instead, in both cases, poor work is an argument for better education.” In order to facilitate that education, Lessig ends Remix with a call for a mode of copyright reform that will enable both read-only and read-write cultures to prosper, freeing kids from the specter of criminalization that currently overshadows their creativity. And where, after all, do we expect tomorrow’s musicians to come from?