Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Lessig’s Keynote at Wikimania

Jonathan Zittrain gets the first group “woo!” of the conference, suggesting that this gathering is a Woodstock for the 21st century, speculating about babies being born in the aisles and Jimmy Hendrix with a keynote speaker. (In case it’s not clear – and it evidently wasn’t to several folks who’ve linked to this article – JZ’s tongue was firmly in cheek.) He introduces Larry Lessig as a “bridge-lawyer”, riffing on the bridge-blog idea the Global Voices crowd often pitches. Larry’s capable of explaining law to geeks, to scaring the pants off lawyers, to making everyone hopeful and scared at the same time.

Larry’s talk focuses on the idea of read-only and read-write cultures (RO vs. RW). He tells a story about John Philip Sousa visiting Congress to warn legislators about gramophones, “these infernal machines”, which are destroying the practice of singing “the songs of the day or the old songs” around the porch. If the gramophone is allowed to spread, “we will not have a vocal chord left” due to evolution.

In an odd way, Sousa was right – the gramophone killed the read/write culture of the day, where people consumed and created the popular song. “These infernal machines” led to the rise of a read-only culture, where creativity is consumed, but consumer is not a creator.

Read-only/read-write is a phenomenon that exists beyond the creation and dissemination of culture. Lessig asks us to hail back to the Republican Party – the one that elected Lincoln – which first campaigned for Colonel John Fremont under the campaign: “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men, Fremont”. Free labor wasn’t meant in the sense of free beer – it was freedom to engage in labor.

This autonomy, the capacity to use your means of production, was a central idea in the US during the Civil War. By the 20th century, it was dead. And now, in the 21st century, it’s coming back. Lessig points to Yochai Benkler’s new book, “The Wealth of Networks”, as a document of the new read/write labor culture, with people empowered to be creators and laborers, sharing their work or collaborating with others.

Larry sees the rise of open source politics as well. Jefferson’s first Republican party helped combat the elitism of the Federalists, creating party politics in the process. Party politics suggested that individuals would take an active role in electioneering, helping convince their neighbors who to vote for. This person to person politics became less prevalent in the 20th century, and is now rising again in the 21st century. The Dean movement – led by Joe Trippi – is bringing read/write politics back into fashion.

Looking at read/write labor, culture and politics, it becomes clear how weirdly totalitarian the 20th century was, dominated by read-only labor, culture and politics.

As we look at the Internet – the infrastructure for our read/write culture – there are at least two cultures competing to use it. One is the new read-only culture, exemplified by Apple. Buy what you want for 99¢, use it only on your iPod. You’re trapped, but you’re cool. This is a movement that increases the power of the copyright holder.

Read/write culture – as exemplified by flickr, technorati, blogger and wikipedia – works on a different model. It encourages remixing, repurposing, makes you a creator as well as a consumer. Larry shows off a handful of viral videos – Anime music videos, the Grey Album, Tarnation (a film that screened at Cannes, made of remixed video, shot for $218), the atmo.se “Read My Lips” video.

(Given the popularity of some of these videos, I wonder whether we’re starting to find a canon of remix culture…)

Lessig notes that “writing words is the latin of our time” – the vulgar language is video and sound. The tools of creativity are actually tools of speech, and the new literacy involves being able to use these tools to remix and create new works.

Copyright law doesn’t like read/write culture. But it LOVES read-only culture. And the weapons of law and technology will kill the potential of read/write culture unless they are resisted.

Larry tells the story of his first resistance movement – litigating Eldridge in front of the US supreme court, and losing 7-2. His focus now is on demonstrating the value of free culture so the political system can wake up to it, since Eldridge determined that the courts believe Congress has full control of what copyright should and shouldn’t do.

To demonstrate and enable free culture, we need an architecture to enable read/write work over the internet. This means fighting “autistic computing” – the tendency of individuals and companies to build hardware and software that doesn’t play nicely with other equipment. The US department of defense helped establish resistance to the idea that IBM computers would only talk to other IBM machines. The internet is the end of “autistic computing”.

But it’s not enough just to build the technical architecture – there are legal threats as well. There’s a clear and present danger from folks like Jack Valenti who consider the copyright wars to be “terrorist wars”… with the terrorists as our media-sharing children. When the locks are built into the read-only internet, Lessig tells us, they will lock out the read/write internet. We need free standards, codecs and software to enable free culture, but we also need to enable it legally.

One of Lessig’s projects to enable the read/write internet is Creative Commons – machine readable, legally valid and human comprehensible licenses to allow people to restrict some, not all, rights to their content. So far, there are 140 million linkbacks to the license – which implies at least 140 million works licensed under some sort of Creative Commons license.

But there’s a problem with this coming at some point in the future. The license CC uses is currently incompatible with the license Wikipedia (the GNU Free Document License) despite the fact that the intent behind both can be quite similar. (Specifically, Larry suggests that FDL and CC-attribution-share alike, basically display the same intent.) If they’ve got the same intent, surely they should be able to share derivative works – CC and Wikipedia will work together with the Software Freedom Law Center to try to “structure the process of federating free licenses”. The goal, Lessig suggests, is not to settle on a single license – it’s to support diversity in the underlying legal code.

Creative Commons is trying another interesting wiki project – the PD-Wiki project. PD is Public Domain, and it’s a wiki that lives on top of a database of published books in Canada. The wiki allows annotation – commentary, information on authors, and information on whether a work is in the public domain. Eventually, features will include an API, which anyone can use to figure out whether a work is or isn’t in the public domain.

Lessig observes that his parents’ generation is referred to as “the Greatest Generation”. This may be so, but they lived in “the weirdest century.” David Clark, who was a weird guy in the 20th century, might be part of the mainstream in the 21st century when he said, “We reject kinds, president and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.”

One Response to “Lessig’s Keynote at Wikimania”

  1. Larry Chiang says:

    Wiki style forms of communication that synergizes the top minds to collaborate are having a social impact now. After the social (and educational) changes to how info is consumed, I agree with Prof. Lessig that there will be a shift from RO to RW. US laws shift to either promote US innovation or will stalwartly remain unchanged and stifle competition.

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