Controlling Creativity: A Review of Free Culture

*Disclaimer: my experience reading this text was negatively impacted by piracy and my own ignorance. I prefer printed books over electronic ones: Highlighting and annotating text helps me to better understand it. Selecting the cheapest version of the book, I ordered my copy in August online. When the book arrived, I  did not take the time to inspect it; I just placed it on my bookshelf to read later in the semester.

When I began reading, I was struck by the pixelated cover art, the lack of page numbers (the page numbers noted here are from the online pdf version of the book), unnecessary forced line justification, and missing figures and diagrams. I wondered if I had purchased a galley copy, but I needed to read the book, so I barreled through despite my increasing levels of visual and intellectual frustration. Thanks to a classmate, I found out that I had purchased a pirated version of the book. The irony of reading a pirated version of a book discussing the ways culture for the many is actually controlled by the very few is not lost on me.

In digital history circles, it is common to discuss the relative ease with which nineteenth-century Americanists can access data; copyright does not restrict our work. Our colleagues who study twentieth-century topics however, often have limited access to data and media. In Free Culture: How Big Media Uses technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (2004), Lawrence Lessig (who is as interested in the nature of political corruption as in the restrictions placed on creativity) reminds us that this limitation is a direct result of the relationship between corporate media entities and the government, especially since 1974: “From the beginning, government and government agencies have been subject to capture. They are more likely captured when a powerful interest is threatened by either a legal or technical change. That powerful interest too often exerts its influence within the government to get the government to protect it” (p. 6).

Currently the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law at Harvard, Lessig points out that the presence of the internet created an “important and unrecognized change” in the way culture is created (p. 7): by increasing the number of people who can “participate in the process of building and cultivating a culture that reaches far beyond local boundaries” (p. 9). However, what we consider as the evidence of culture is owned, not by the individual creators, but by corporate media entities. Culture is no longer free; rather, it is now beyond the reach of the masses, unless corporate media entities grant permission. We live in a “permission culture” (p. xiv). The foundations of this permission culture  are the overreach of copyright power, combined with the media entities’ use of legal maneuvers to thwart competition, whether that is suing individual citizens (college students, a grandfather, a child living in public housing) for copyright infringement via computer networks, suing venture capitalist that fund potential competitors, acquiring innovative music platforms (Vivendi Universal’s purchase of emusic.com and mp3.com), and pricing culture outside commonly accepted boundaries, even when it’s fair use (Fox charging $10,000 for an indirect shot of the Simpsons).

Beginning with the 1710 passage of the Statute of Anne, the first copyright law, Free Culture chronicles the creation, development, and expansion of copyright in American society (often referred to as “our tradition”) with numerous vignettes. It is not until the end of the book, however, that Lessig offers solutions to swing the cultural pendulum away from permission toward free. He advocates for the integrated use of Common Commons licenses: an “expression of the ideal that the person associated with the license believes in something different than the ‘All’ or ‘No’ extremes” (pp. 282-283), as well making online work more easily recognized as being protected. Another  suggestion involves keeping issues of creation and culture out of courtrooms: “The law should regulate in certain areas of culture–but it should regulate culture only where that regulation does good” (p. 305).

In the most general sense, it’s difficult to disagree with the argument of Free Culture , especially in this time and place where the digital is an integral part of our lives. We could argue that permission culture still exists to a certain extent, but we could also argue that a modified free culture has merged and bloomed via corporate platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Vine (RIP). People previously at the margins of popular American culture are using these platforms to push their way to the center. Many online communities govern themselves by way of a politics of citation, crediting hashtag originators and creators of viral videos, gifs, and memes. While Lessig has  now moved away from focusing on free culture, it might be interesting to examine this cultural shift.

While I agree with the overall argument of Free Culture, there are some issues to raise with this text. First, one could question whether Lessig truly needed more than three hundred pages to make his argument–and then utilize only the last fifty to offer alternatives to our current “permission culture”. Second, I contend that his assumption that “nobility of any form…is alien to our tradition” seems to be overly idealistic; it’s a romanticized ideal of American society and the creation of American culture (p. 27). While American colonists may have rebelled against British rule, it was replaced with pervasive (and distinctly American) systems of class and privilege. It would be naïve to forget that there are marginalized communities in the United States whose culture have been taken wholesale by larger American society and commodified, without their input or assent. Where is the freedom in that? There are also turns of phrase that are out of place, and dare I suggest, irresponsible, such as “Nor is it a call to jihad against an industry” and “I don’t take anything from you when I copy the way you dress—though I might seem weird if I did it every day, and especially weird if you are a woman” (p. 27, 96). A reader might expect more precise and less inflammatory language–at least this one does.

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