Remix by Laurence Lessig

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The subtitle is "making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy"

I do not want to start off this post by saying something cliche' like any working in ecommerce, new media, or Internet services should read this book though the temptation is there. Instead I will say that in my own line of work this book has already given me a new way to approach certain arguments and a new way to conceptualize how the Internet and its economic and sociological implications are developing at present time.

Remix is a comfortable, insightful and at times funny read. It is written by a Stanford law professor with a very strong background in Internet and commerce. He presents the book with simple language and clear examples which tend to favor a more business or political audience than one specialized in law.

The central argument of this book is that our copyright laws in the digital economy are outdated and ineffective - ineffective for both consumers of copyrighted content and the suppliers of it. It is a system that penalizes the small actors on stage but also complicates matters for big business who spend endless amounts of money policing those who abuse the current laws. There needs to be news ways to tax the revenue generated by the sale of artists' goods.

The copyright laws in place were developed in an analog world when sharing a record meant physically giving the copy to someone else thus taking the copy away from yourself. Later on with the advent of cassette, records and photocopy machines, it became possible to make lower quality copies of music or books while keeping the original. However, the situation has changed dramatically with digital technology. The "copy" has a new definition. Now an MP3 file copy is identical to the original. When a copy is made the original is not effected. The Internet and high-speed data networks make the dispersal of these copies simple and fast.

One argument that resonated with me is how outdated copyright laws are impeding the development of a new forms of culture and expression. The way users in the digital world paste a collage of photos, sample music or piece together multimedia presentations is something new that needs to be promoted as a new form of cultural expression. Copyright laws which make a DJ ask for permission to use a 10 second sample of someone else's music slowdown this development. Not only do they restrict the spawning of new culture they also punish these "aggregating artists" as well as other smaller businesses and entrepreneurs lacking the resources to battle the legal bureaucracy of copyright. It is essentially another way the US government is picking winners alla GM. Large record labels, for example, benefit at the expense of smaller players. By supporting these traditional, established players we risk missing out on the birth of new, unknown industries which would result from this cultural innovation.

Lessig's book was a bit thin on alternative ways artists could be properly paid for their work. One suggestion was to add a tax onto Internet access. This tax would then be divided among artists based on what percentage of the total volume of file sharing traffic their songs made up. However, the lack of alternatives does not hinder the book in my eyes.

What I appreciated most about Remix was how it attempted to address an issue we are facing now in modern society. It is a book for the business community that does not heap praise on past "heroes" but instead provides means to better conceptualize the digital economy and how it is developing before our eyes. It also reminds us of how such an economy is blurring the lines between business and society in a way that has not been seen for a long time.


Nels Abrams September 4, 2009 at 5:42 PM  

Copyright issues are tough. One the one hand, you want to provide incentive for creative production. But on the other hand, overly protectionist copyright laws can act to inhibit development which benefits from the patent. Also, a patent creates a temporary monopoly on a product. Surely limiting the use of knowledge and monopolies aren't the most efficient way.

But to address the problem requires international cooperation. And Russia and China haven't indicated they are willing to cooperate with intellectual property rights.

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