I just finished reading Lawrence Lessig’s new book Free Culture, available under a Creative Commons License. You can download the PDF or buy it here.
My senior year at Duke, I took a seminar on Information Technology and the Internet and how they affect different aspects of society. There, I first read Lessig’s Code. Before delving into the book, I want to start with a story.
Back when I was building my first webpage (having just learned HTML, I believe the year was 1995, but I can’t remember at the moment), I wanted to create an image map for my site. Knowing only a little about copyrights, I thought as long as I gave the author/creator credit, I was fine. When I was citing text for research papers in high school, I didn’t have to go get the permission of the author, you just had to correctly include a citation to the work. I now know this is Fair Use, but that wasn’t a concept I really understood at the time (back to the story…) I used a photograph of Mark Leven’s (I can’t find his site anymore) to make the map, gave him credit for the photograph and provided a link to his site. Not long after putting it up, I received an email from him asking me to take it down (I have no idea to this day how he got to my site). Well, I ended up taking it down and scanned a post card I had brought back from a trip to Mexico instead. I also know now this this also is a copyright violation. Basically, if I hadn’t taken a picture myself, what could I do? I couldn’t include pictures of place’s I had never been to. Couldn’t incorporate what anyone else had seen and “shared” with my own view of the world without violating someone’s copyright.
This is all before the Creative Commons License existed, but it shows how valuable it is to know what rights an author or creator wishes to to keep when they share something with the rest of the world. Most (if not all) the images I use now in anything I do are images I took or made myself or are public domain. BTW, for an incredible selection of public domain images, graphics, and art, I highly recommend istockphoto.
There are many aspects to copyrights that make sense and Lessig does a good job of balancing in his commentary. The main frustration I share with Lessig is the influence that corporations like Disney and organizations like the RIAA and the MPAA have on the law that implements and enforces copyrights. If you are at all interested in a balanced representation of this, I highly recommend Free Culture. Lessig never does get on a high horse and raves (which I think is very tempting, as one who shares many of his views). He comes across as calmly and methodically laying out an argument which is very persuasive. Lessig purposefully glances over the Free Software movement, which I guess makes sense because it is really a full-fledged tangent on its own.
With my previous Blog implementation, my blog was licensed under Creative Commons. Wordpress unfortunately doesn’t have that functionality built in, but I found a “plugin” to restore the license. I also decided to have the rest of my website under the CC license. Don’t think this is me jumping on a bandwagon. I’ve been a supporter of the public domain for a long time. The reality that no copyrights have expired since the era of the Great Depression is something that I find an abomination and an injustice (as Lessig describes in detail). I followed the Eldred Case, hoping they would succeed and stop Congress from extending the copyright term for another 20 years.
Since then however, the landscape of politics has drastically turned to other matters. I don’t mean to sound like a pessimist, but I don’t see Congress returning to this issue until 2019 (I believe) when next copyrights get a change to move into the public domain. Until then, supporting projects like Creative Commons, GNU, Archive.org, and others will help build awareness and support, so we are ready to fight the next fight in 2019.