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Larry Lessig: Re-examining the remix

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I want to talk about what we learn from conservatives. And I'm at a stage in life where I'm yearning for my old days, so I want to confess to you that when I was a kid, indeed, I was a conservative. I was a Young Republican, a Teenage Republican, a leader in the Teenage Republicans. Indeed, I was the youngest member of any delegation in the 1980 convention that elected Ronald Reagan to be the Republican nominee for president.

Now, I know what you're thinking. (Laughter) You're thinking, "That's not what the Internets say." You're thinking, "Wikipedia doesn't say this fact." And indeed, this is just one of the examples of the junk that flows across the tubes in these Internets here. Wikipedia reports that this guy, this former congressman from Erie, Pennsylvania was, at the age of 20, one of the youngest people at the Republican National Convention, but it's just not true. (Laughter) Indeed, it drives me so nuts, let me just change this little fact here. (Laughter) (Applause) All right. Okay, so ... perfect. Perfect. (Laughter) Okay, speaker Lawrence Lessig, right. Okay. Finally, truth will be brought here. Okay, see? It's done. It's almost done. Here we go. "... Youngest Republican," okay, we're finished. That's it. Please save this. Great, here we go. And ... Wikipedia is fixed, finally. Okay, but no, this is really besides the point.


But the thing I want you to think about when we think about conservatives -- not so much this issue of the 1980 convention -- the thing to think about is this: They go to church. Now, you know, I mean, a lot of people go to church. I'm not talking about that only conservatives go to church. And I'm not talking about the God thing. I don't want to get into that, you know; that's not my point. They go to church, by which I mean, they do lots of things for free for each other. They hold potluck dinners. Indeed, they sell books about potluck dinners. They serve food to poor people. They share, they give, they give away for free. And it's the very same people leading Wall Street firms who, on Sundays, show up and share. And not only food, right.

These very same people are strong believers, in lots of contexts, in the limits on the markets. They are in many important places against markets. Indeed, they, like all of us, celebrate this kind of relationship. But they're very keen that we don't let money drop into that relationship, else it turns into something like this. They want to regulate us, those conservatives, to stop us from allowing the market to spread in those places. Because they understand: There are places for the market and places where the market should not exist, where we should be free to enjoy the fellowship of others. They recognize: Both of these things have to live together.

And the second great thing about conservatives: they get ecology. Right, it was the first great Republican president of the 20th century who taught us about environmental thinking -- Teddy Roosevelt. They first taught us about ecology in the context of natural resources. And then they began to teach us in the context of innovation, economics. They understand, in that context, "free." They understand "free" is an important essential part of the cultural ecology as well. That's the thing I want you to think about them.

Now, I know you don't believe me, really, here. So here's exhibit number one. I want to share with you my latest hero, Julian Sanchez, a libertarian who works at the, for many people, "evil" Cato Institute. Okay, so Julian made this video. He's a terrible producer of videos, but it's great content, so I'm going to give you a little bit of it. So here he is beginning.

Julian Sanchez: I'm going to make an observation about the way remix culture seems to be evolving ...

Larry Lessig: So what he does is he begins to tell us about these three videos. This is this fantastic Brat Pack remix set to Lisztomania. Which, of course, spread virally. Hugely successful.

(Music) And then some people from Brooklyn saw it. They decided they wanted to do the same. (Music) And then, of course, people from San Fransisco saw it. And San Franciscans thought they had to do the same as well. (Music) And so they're beautiful, but this libertarian has some important lessons he wants us to learn from this. Here's lesson number one.

JS: There's obviously also something really deeply great about this. They are acting in the sense that they're emulating the original mashup. And the guy who shot it obviously has a strong eye and some experience with video editing. But this is also basically just a group of friends having an authentic social moment and screwing around together. It should feel familiar and kind of resonate for anyone who's had a sing-a-long or a dance party with a group of good friends.

LL: Or ...

JS: So that's importantly different from the earlier videos we looked at because here, remix isn't just about an individual doing something alone in his basement; it becomes an act of social creativity. And it's not just that it yields a different kind of product at the end, it's that potentially it changes the way that we relate to each other. All of our normal social interactions become a kind of invitation to this sort of collective expression. It's our real social lives themselves that are transmuted into art.

LL: And so then, what this libertarian draws from these two points ...

JS: One remix is about individuals using our shared culture as a kind of language to communicate something to an audience. Stage two, social remix, is really about using it to mediate people's relationships to each other. First, within each video, the Brat Pack characters are used as a kind of template for performing the social reality of each group. But there's also a dialogue between the videos, where, once the basic structure is established, it becomes a kind of platform for articulating the similarities and differences between the groups' social and physical worlds.

LL: And then, here's for me, the critical key to what Julian has to say ...

JS: Copyright policy isn't just about how to incentivize the production of a certain kind of artistic commodity; it's about what level of control we're going to permit to be exercised over our social realities -- social realities that are now inevitably permeated by pop culture. I think it's important that we keep these two different kinds of public goods in mind. If we're only focused on how to maximize the supply of one, I think we risk suppressing this different and richer and, in some ways, maybe even more important one.

LL: Right. Bingo. Point. Freedom needs this opportunity to both have the commercial success of the great commercial works and the opportunity to build this different kind of culture. And for that to happen, you need ideas like fair use to be central and protected, to enable this kind of innovation, as this libertarian tells us, between these two creative cultures, a commercial and a sharing culture. The point is they, he, here, gets that culture.

Now, my concern is, we Dems, too often, not so much. All right, take for example this great company. In the good old days when this Republican ran that company, their greatest work was work that built on the past, right. All of the great Disney works were works that took works that were in the public domain and remixed them, or waited until they entered the public domain to remix them, to celebrate this add-on remix creativity. Indeed, Mickey Mouse himself, of course, as "Steamboat Willie," is a remix of the then, very dominant, very popular "Steamboat Bill" by Buster Keaton. This man was a remixer extraordinaire. He is the celebration and ideal of exactly this kind of creativity.

But then the company passes through this dark stage to this Democrat. Wildly different. This is the mastermind behind the eventual passage of what we call the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, extending the term of existing copyrights by 20 years, so that no one could do to Disney what Disney did to the Brothers Grimm. Now, when we tried to challenge this, going to the Supreme Court, getting the Supreme Court, the bunch of conservatives there -- if we could get them to wake up to this -- to strike it down, we had the assistance of Nobel Prize winners including this right-wing Nobel Prize winner, Milton Friedman, who said he would join our brief only if the word "no brainer" was in the brief somewhere. (Laughter) But apparently, no brains existed in this place when Democrats passed and signed this bill into law. Now, tiny little quibble of a footnote: Sonny Bono, you might say, was a Republican, but I don't buy it. This guy is no Republican.

Okay, for a second example, think about this cultural hero, icon on the Left, creator of this character. Look at the site that he built: "Star Wars" MashUps, inviting people to come and use their creative energy to produce a new generation of attention towards this extraordinarily important cultural icon. Read the license. The license for these remixers assigns all of the rights to the remix back to Lucas. The mashup is owned by Lucas. Indeed, anything you add to the mashup, music you might add, Lucas has a worldwide perpetual right to exploit that for free. There is no creator here to be recognized. The creator doesn't have any rights. The creator is a sharecropper in this story. And we should remember who employed the sharecroppers: the Democrats, right?

So the point is the Republicans here recognize that there's a certain need of ownership, a respect for ownership, the respect we should give the creator, the remixer, the owner, the property owner, the copyright owner of this extraordinarily powerful stuff, and not a generation of sharecroppers. Now, I think there are lessons we should learn here, lessons about openness. Our lives are sharing activities, at least in part. Even for the head of Goldman Sachs, at least in part. And for that sharing activity to happen, we have to have well-protected spaces of fair use.

That's number one. Number two: This ecology of sharing needs freedom within which to create. Freedom, which means without permission from anyone, the ability to create. And number three: We need to respect the creator, the creator of these remixes through rights that are directly tied to them. Now, this explains the right-wing nonprofit Creative Commons. Actually, it's not a right-wing nonprofit, but of course -- let me just tie it here -- the Creative Commons, which is offering authors this simple way to mark their content with the freedoms they intended to carry.

So that we go from a "all rights reserved" world to a "some rights reserved" world so that people can know the freedoms they have attached to the content, building and creating on the basis of this creative copyrighted work. These tools that we built enable this sharing in parts through licenses that make it clear and a freedom to create without requiring permission first because the permission has already been granted and a respect for the creator because it builds upon a copyright the creator has licensed freely. And it explains the vast right-wing conspiracy that's obviously developed around these licenses, as now more than 350 million digital objects are out there, licensed freely in this way.

Now that picture of an ecology of creativity, the picture of an ecology of balanced creativity, is that the ecology of creativity we have right now? Well, as you all know, not many of us believe we do. I tripped on the reality of this ecology of creativity just last week. I created a video which was based on a Wireside Chat that I'd given, and I uploaded it to YouTube. I then got this email from YouTube weirdly notifying me that there was content in that owned by the mysterious WMG that matched their content ID. So I didn't think much about it.

And then on Twitter, somebody said to me, "Your talk on YouTube was DMCA'd. Was that your purpose?" imagining that I had this deep conspiracy to reveal the obvious flaws in the DMCA. I answered, "No." I didn't even think about it. But then I went to the site and all of the audio in my site had been silenced. My whole 45-minute video had been silenced because there were snippets in that video, a video about fair use, that included Warner Music Group music. Now, interestingly, they still sold ads for that music, if you played the silent video. You could still buy the music, but you couldn't hear anything because it had been silenced.

So I did what the current regime says I must do to be free to use YouTube to talk about fair use. I went to this site, and I had to answer these questions. And then in an extraordinarily Bart Simpson-like, juvenile way you've actually got to type out these words and get them right to reassert your freedom to speak. And I felt like I was in third grade again. "I will not put tacks on the teacher's chair. I will not put tacks on the teacher's chair." This is absurd. It is outrageous. It is an extraordinary perversion of the system of freedom we should be encouraging.

And the question I ask you is: Who's fighting it? Well, interestingly, in the last presidential election, who was the number one, active opponent of this system of regulation in online speech? John McCain. Letter after letter attacking YouTube's refusal to be more respectful of fair use with their extraordinary notice and take down system, that led his campaign so many times to be thrown off the Internet.

Now, that was the story of me then, my good old days of right-wing lunacy. Let me come back to now, now when I'm a little leftist -- I'm certainly left-handed, so at least a lefty -- And I wonder, can we on the Left expect to build this ecology of freedom, now, in a world where we know the extraordinarily powerful influences against it, where even icons of the Left like this entertain and push bills that would effectively ban the requirement of open access for government-funded research? The president, who has supported a process that secretly negotiates agreements, which effectively lock us into the insane system of DMCA that we have adopted and likely lock us down a path of three strikes, you're out that, of course, the rest of the world are increasingly adopting. Not a single example of reform has been produced yet. And we're not going to see this change in this system anytime soon.

So here's the lessons of openness that I think we need to learn. Openness is a commitment to a certain set of values. We need to speak of those values. The value of freedom. It's a value of community. It's a value of the limits in regulation. It's a value respecting the creator. Now, if we can learn those values from at least some influences on the Right, if we can take them and incorporate them, maybe we could do a little trade. We learn those values on the Left, and maybe they'll do health care or global warming legislation or something in the Right.

Anyway, please join me in teaching these values.

Thank you very much.


Video Details

Duration: 18 minutes and 25 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 375
Posted by: tedtalks on Jun 1, 2010

At TEDxNYED, former "young Republican" Larry Lessig talks about what Democrats can learn about copyright from their opposite party, considered more conservative. A surprising lens on remix culture.

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