Friday, May 12, 2006

Free as in Permission

Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture addresses one of the most dramatic shifts in our idea of rights: from promoting creativity to requiring permission to build on the past. He demonstrates that society has always defended certain creative freedoms for the common good and that every type of media today was originally built on piracy. His contributions through the EFF might be the most important legal advocacy for the continued growth of the Internet, but there's something questionable about his premise.

Lessig is a true believer in the power of the law, and it's hard to argue. Every new law written augments the power of every other law, and we've passed the point where we can avoid it. There's no frontier, no Wild West. But does copyright really benefit society? He focuses on promoting creativity, but copyright law has been so manipulated by commercial interests that its primary purpose is to ensure that art is sold. Believing in copyright now implies believing that selling art encourages creative growth.

The majority of works have always been created by amateurs. Only a small portion of art, but some of the best, has been professional. Most professional artists, whether painters or writers, have not been independently wealthy and have relied on patrons. In the past, most patrons funded art to glorify themselves or their god or simply because they appreciated the art. Patrons who buy art to sell it are a relatively new and small phenomenon. The record industries, the motion picture industries, the publishing industries, and all the rest are significant mainly for the amount of money they control. Whether there is actually more creativity in the world because of them is debatable.

Of course, the original purpose of copyright was to give the artist control, but very few independent artists actually have the power to defend their copyrights. How many musicians have shut down file sharing? If the law doesn't work as intended and harms the common good by encouraging only commercial commodity art, what good is it really?

If free culture is replaced, as Lessig fears, "permission culture" might not last. It could be the new Prohibition. With everyone breaking the law, the interests of permission might be forced to concede like the Prohibitionists. But even the Prohibitionists only partially conceded. They tried not only to abolish alcohol, but also marijuana and other "vices." Drinking culture was too entrenched to remain illegal, but marijuana, arguably a much less harmful drug, remains illegal, with persistent effects on medicine and industry. Regardless of the consequences or benefits, it shows that people will only fight so hard for their freedom, especially under the influence of propaganda.

An imperfect legal system with questionable benefits could be our last defense against cultural erosion, and if we cross the line into a permission culture we might not recover. Seemingly inconsequential issues like copyright and copyleft are important. "Viral licenses" that require derivatives of free works to remain free help promote free culture, and that's why this blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 license. But whatever type of freedom you prefer, don't take it for granted.

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