The shrinking of the public domain, and the devastation it threatens to the culture, are the subject of a powerfully argued and important analysis by Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford Law School and a leading member of a group of theorists and grass-roots activists, sometimes called the ''copyleft,'' who have been crusading against the increasing expansion of copyright protections. Lessig was the chief lawyer in a noble, but ultimately unsuccessful, Supreme Court challenge to the copyright extension act. Free Culture is partly a final appeal to the court of public opinion and partly a call to arms.
From Stanford law professor Lessig (Code; The Future of Ideas) comes this expertly argued, alarming and surprisingly entertaining look at the current copyright wars. Copyright law in the digital age has become a hot topic, thanks to millions of music downloaders and the controversial, high-profile legal efforts of the music industry to stop them. Here Lessig argues that copyright as designed by the Framers has become dangerously unbalanced, favoring the interests of corporate giants over the interests of citizens and would-be innovators. In clear, well-paced prose, Lessig illustrates how corporations attempt to stifle innovations, from FM radio and the instant camera to peer-to-peer technology. He debunks the myth that draconian new copyright enforcement is needed to combat the entertainment industry's expanded definition of piracy, and chillingly assesses the direct and collateral damage of the copyright war. Information technology student Jesse Jordan, for example, was forced to hand over his life savings to settle a lawsuit brought by the music industry-for merely fixing a glitch in an Internet search engine. Lessig also offers a very personal look into his failed Supreme Court bid to overturn the Copyright Term Extension Act, a law that added 20 years to copyright protections largely to protect Mickey Mouse from the public domain. In addition to offering a brilliant argument, Lessig also suggests a few solutions, including the Creative Commons licensing venture (an online licensing venture that streamlines the rights process for creators), as well as legislative solutions. This is an important book. "Free Cultures are cultures that leave a great deal open for others to build upon," he writes. "Ours was a free culture. It is becoming less so." (Mar. 29) Forecast: This book will have a wider appeal than Lessig's previous works, and author appearances in New York and San Francisco could attract buyers. With peer-to-peer file sharing constantly making headlines, the book has added relevance. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
"A free culture, like a free market, is filled with property," writes a copyright expert. But, he adds, extremism in asserting rights in that property can kill a culture. Consider Disney Corp., which regularly clamps down on artists who use the likeness of, say, Mickey Mouse for their own purposes. Now, Mickey has been around since 1928, born, Lessig (Law/Stanford Univ.; The Future of Ideas, 2001, etc.) argues, to the great magpie Walt Disney, who "ripped creativity from the culture around him, mixed that creativity with his own extraordinary talent, and then burned that mix into the soul of his culture. Rip, mix, and burn." Fair enough, and it's inarguable that many of Disney's early creations were parodies of or commentaries on other films of his time. Try that today, though, and you'll invite a lawsuit, for the big media have taken pains to secure legislation that extends copyright terms, and always in their favor; you wanna use Mickey, you gotta pay on Disney's terms. "No society," writes Lessig, "free or controlled, has ever demanded that every use be paid for or that permission for Walt Disney's creation must always be sought. Instead, every society has left a certain bit of its culture free for the taking." Until now, that is. The result: rampant piracy, ever-tighter commercial control over intellectual rights, and a derivative, commercialized, impoverished culture. Though no stranger to rhetorical excess ("every generation welcomes the pirates from the last"), Lessig quite sensibly suggests that copyright become harder to hold onto for long stretches, and that the emphasis of the law shift to a "some rights reserved stance," particularly where the work in question is no longeractively sold on the market-an out-of-print book, say, or CD. Provocative, and sure to inspire argument among the myriad lawyers who, Lessig hints, are the only ones who benefit from the current mess. Amanda Urban/ICM