Reading Lessig’s Remix : Copyright Regulating Culture

Lessig at Meet the Media Guru

Lawrence Lessig will tell you what copyright does to culture

My summer reading this year includes Lawrence Lessig‘s Remix, and it’s so far been refreshing to read about how copyright drives and hampers our culture.  Tonight, though, I’m hung up on a dark, sour fact about copyright, especially as it exists in America, which is that an act that was meant to control professional duplications (i.e., piracy) now regulates the lives of everyday citizens.

Lessig explains that American copyright legislation, as it was originally crafted in the 1790s, regulated the ‘printing, reprinting, publishing, and vending’ of works (2008, p. 100), i.e., it meant to prevent the professional reproduction and sale of texts; it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the law was redrafted to refer to the general copying of a text by a variety of means and for a variety of reasons.  As Lessig explains, “as the range of technologies that enabled people to ‘copy’ increased, so too did the effective scope of regulation increase” (p. 101).

On the surface, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this increased regulation – it should be well and proper that an individual’s creative works be protected, right? To an incredible degree, the answer is yes. A problem lies, however, in the fact that “every poet is a thief,” especially in a post-modern technoculture.  So much of art is inspired by one’s encounters with people, places, and texts (in a broad sense), and so many of these texts are today developed and then reserved under license by various copyright holders.  Art today, and our responses to art, are a pastiche of other objects (Lessig would call it a collage), which means that our ability to communicate freely is hampered by a law that has inadvertently grown out of control:

More and more people use technology to say things, and not simply with words. Music is remixed; video mash-ups proliferate; blogs begin to build a culture around the idea of talking back . . .

. . . Digital technology also changes how RW [remix] culture and copyright interact.  Because every use of creative work technically produces a copy, every use of creative work technically triggers copyright law.  And while many of these uses might be fair use . . . the critical point to recognize is that this is still a vast change to the history of American copyright law. For the first time, the law regulates ordinary citizens generally . . . For the first time, the law reaches and regulates this culture. Not because Congress deliberated and decided that this form of creativity needed regulation, but simply because the architecture of copyright law interacted with the architecture of digital technology to produce a massive expansion in the reach of the law.

(Lessig, p. 103.)

The point to take home is this: Copyright as we know it is an old law.  So many recent changes to it (e.g., the DMCA) have maligned the original law’s intention and are encoding into law the regulation of culture.  This isn’t to suggest that we should run back to 1790 or 1909 and interpret the act as lawmakers would have then, but it is to state that our current interpretation of Copyright doesn’t account for the effects that modern technology has on our culture’s relationship with an old statute.  The maligned interaction between copyright law and digital technology was not deliberate, so we have no reason to assume that any modernization should enshrine this faulty status quo.