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Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy

By Lawrence Lessig

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Penguin Press, 327 pages, $28.50

Lawrence Lessig is worried about the kids. The Stanford University law professor argued in two previous books that the current copyright regime is seriously cramping creative expression, innovation and, ultimately, freedom.

Since then, he has become a father, twice, and now contemplates the matter with the anxious eyes of a parent.

The media industries, he says, are waging an unwinnable war against illegal online activity, and this is making "criminals" of our children. Lessig's concern is the dynamic online cultural phenomenon of remix, which current copyright law makes presumptively illegal. Rap tunes that "sample" riffs from other artists' recordings, video mash-ups of film clips, fan works that use characters from popular television series: These are examples of remix, the creative reworking of copyright works belonging to others. Today, individuals can easily create and share remixes online. The perceived unfairness of the copyright law that prohibits this, and their studied indifference to it, Lessig fears, is turning young people into scofflaws.

In Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Lessig makes an impassioned plea for the value of amateur remix and offers a controversial prescription for legitimizing its status. He analyzes the intersecting motivations of both commercial and voluntary, or sharing, economies on the Net, and charts the emergence of a hybrid of the two. He makes a persuasive case that this developing hybrid economy will and should ultimately lead to greater permissiveness toward amateur creativity. Whether one agrees with his specific proposals or not, this insightful book is one that anyone interested in the future of culture on the Net should read.

Remix is "the essential art" of a broader phenomenon that Lessig calls Read/Write, or RW culture, culture that invites creative audience participation, such as blogging. He contrasts it to Read/Only, or RO culture; what we think of as traditional works, offered for consumption only, like medical textbooks. RO and RW cultures are not presented as either-or alternatives. Lessig's point is not that we need less RO culture, but that we need much more RW culture.

Why? It is not merely because amateur works are, in his view, unlikely to harm the interests of the copyright holder. Nor is it for artistic merit, which Lessig admits is often lacking, though he challenges the view that remixes are purely "derivative" and "lacking in originality." (In fact, he maintains that it takes extraordinary knowledge of culture to remix it well, to invoke the rich associations conjured up by samples, images or clips from popular music, art, games and film, and to place them in telling juxtaposition.)

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No, it is the practice or discipline of thinking and expressing through remixing, and through critical conversation with culture in general, that is valuable, not the end product. "A culture filled with bloggers," Lessig writes, "thinks differently about politics or public affairs, if only because more have been forced through the discipline of thinking it through."

Lessig sees a future made friendly for RW culture in the hybrid economy. According to Lessig, hybrids will in time "dominate the architecture for commerce on the Web." The hybrid economy he describes includes communities such as Flickr and YouTube, in which individuals post their photos and videos for sharing, accompanied (and commercialized) by online ads. It includes collaborative communities in which individuals participate to build something, often around a media property, such as the fansite The Daily Prophet, where fans write and post about Harry Potter.

Lessig describes the learning curve that Warner Bros. followed as it came to recognize that it was in its own commercial self-interest to relax restrictions on fan use of its Harry Potter properties in order to build closer ties to the fans who are its most dedicated audience.

And finally, Lessig notes the hybrid nature of virtual communities built on commercial platforms, such as Second Life or World of Warcraft, in which the participants add value on a massive scale by building elaborate worlds and interacting with each other within that platform.

In all these cases, the content is uploaded for free by participants, but is leveraged commercially in the search for profit. This profit potential, Lessig speculates, will provide the strong incentive that will increasingly drive commercial entities to become hybrids. A Net economy dominated by hybrids, he says, will "pave the way" toward legalizing the remix creativity on which so much hybrid commerce depends.

Lessig suggests several significant policy changes necessary to let remix expression thrive. First among them is a call for the deregulation of all amateur creativity in all media. By this he means that remix should be considered free use, not fair use; that is, it should be exempt from copyright control altogether, except where commercial entities use amateur content for profit.

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This is a big idea. In the space he gives himself, Lessig cannot begin to consider all its ramifications. He spends no time, for one thing, considering the possible negative fallout for authors and artists of unregulated amateur free use of their works, in the absence of any considerations of fairness. It is by no means certain, for another, that the distinction between commercial and non-commercial remix that he relies upon will remain clear in the rapidly evolving environment of the Net. And it seems at least equally likely that "a Net economy dominated by hybrids" could lead simply to more tolerated, or more expressly permitted, amateur reuses of works, rather than to calls on the U.S. Congress to fundamentally rewrite the law.

Lessig's thesis gets obscured at times in the course of his analysis, making the reading experience a bit disjointed. Occasionally, his criticism of media companies seems calculated to appeal to the most radical, anti-copyright element of his following. And his style can be a bit uneven. That said, in Remix, Lawrence Lessig delivers what is ultimately a hopeful forecast for a resolution to the conflicts in the interface between law and remix that digital technology has brought direct to our laptops. Listen up, kids.

Grace Westcott is vice-chair of the Canadian Copyright Institute, a practising copyright lawyer and only rarely mixed up.

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