Lessig Mixes it Up

Attorney and legal scholar Lawrence Lessig considers the current copyright system to be generally antagonistic to contemporary culture.  In fact, any number of common assertions about copyright’s supposed obsolescence in the digital age are very likely derivative of something written or said by Lessig, who has devoted a fair amount of energy promoting the value of the remix.  In at least two video versions of this talk, he prefaces the subject by quoting John Philip Sousa, who in 1906 decried the new “talking machines” thus:

“When I was a boy … in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today, you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.”

You might expect this quote to be used as a segue to criticism of anachronistic fears of new technology — like Jack Valenti’s infamous exaggeration about the VCR as a “Boston Strangler” — and in fact this Sousa quote has been referenced by scholars and technology advocates in this context.  But in this case, Lessig cites the composer for a very different purpose, which is to tee up his audience for a chat about rediscovering what he calls “read/write culture.”  In essence, Lessig claims a kinship with Sousa, pining for the days when people sang (i.e. shared) songs with one another through the nexus of their front porches.  Thus grounding viewers in this nostalgic idyll, Lessig then proposes the reasonable enough notion that YouTube (or any social media) is the new front porch of our digital times. This, he tells us, is how “the kids” are sharing the songs of the day — through mashups, through bedroom performances, through remix in many forms — and it is, therefore, wrong to criminalize “the kids” for engaging in a new variation of a bygone pastime.  And by “criminalize” of course he means enforcing copyrights through takedowns, C&D letters, or even lawsuits.

Now, Mr. Lessig is a controversial figure among those who care about artists’ rights and digital culture, but he is also a highly qualified legal scholar, and I would not presume to question his knowledge of the law itself.  I leave such criticism (and there is plenty) to Mr. Lessig’s peers.  But I do know a sales pitch when I hear one, and I certainly have a bone or two to pick with what Mr. Lessig appears to be selling.

Right off the bat, he takes Sousa’s concern for the American vocal cord entirely out of context, omitting the fact that these words were uttered as a preamble to testimony before Congress in favor of stronger copyright laws.  Specifically, Sousa hoped copyright would expand to protect sound recordings, which didn’t happen for another seventy years.  Regardless, even cherry picking the sentiment, I’ll buy Lessig’s comparison between the porch of yesteryear and the virtual porch of today, but I have to stop myself from being sucked too deeply into the metaphor when I realize he’s constructing a straw man.  Or in this case, straw kids.

As Lessig is free to generalize in his talk — to gloss over the case-by-case realities of various infringements, fair uses, takedowns, or suits — I’ll claim the same privilege and generalize that very few rights holders are in any way interested in “criminalizing” the kind of remixing that could arguably compare to the social celebration evoked in Sousa’s yearning plea. In fact, here’s a video of some ladies singing just one of the songs of the day (the mid 80s anyway) on both a virtual and literal front stoop just as JP Sousa would supposedly have it.

This ukelele trio that calls itself No Skanks On Sunday offers a charming rendition of “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” written and originally performed by David Lowery’s band Camper Van Beethoven.  And you know who’s just fine with this video remaining on YouTube?  David Lowery and Camper Van Beethoven.  That’s the same David Lowery who, through guest appearances and his blog The Trichordist, has become one of the most outspoken opponents of piracy and other forms of mass digital infringement. But when I asked him about this video, his response was, “Yeah, we don’t care about that stuff.”  And I’ll bet my paycheck against Lessig’s that the majority of rights holders feel the same way about this kind of use.  So, if we’re going to generalize, I think it’s accurate to say that remix culture, for better or worse, is doing just fine and that the number of wrongful, mean-spirited, or aggressive takedowns represent the exception rather than the rule.  So, while I don’t know the law well enough to tangle with Lawrence Lessig, I see little evidence of rampant “criminalization of the kids,” which makes me wonder if Lessig is really concerned with defending culture, or is he concerned with selling books and making a career out of addressing a problem that isn’t a real problem?

Meanwhile, what is certainly offensive to artists and bad for culture at the same time is what happens when one types “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” or just about any other song title, into a search engine. We’re supposed to be 20 years into “the information age,” but good information is actually becoming harder to find if search is the tool being used.  The top results will be a handful of YouTube videos of CVB playing their song, none of which are by permission; then the obligatory Wikipedia entry, which is an okay first source but requires fact-checking; then there’s a smattering of unlicensed lyric sites selling ads and only sometimes crediting the songwriters; and then we get into torrents and other means of downloading unlicensed versions of the song itself.  Nearly all of this activity directs money into Google’s coffers, and neither the band nor the public is particularly well served if the initial search began with “What’s that song? Whose is it? I want to know more?” For all the noise about “connecting with fans,” search is actually a wonderful way to disconnect works from their authors and to hijack potential fans away from patronizing the artists themselves. I think we all have a bit of ADD on the web; we set out looking for something and can be easily distracted by the offerings in the top results.  Think Google doesn’t know this?

I remain confused as to why a band’s official website is not among the top results when one types in famous lyrics or song tiles; and I know what SEO is, but if cultural diffusion is the goal, shouldn’t the digital-age version of the album cover be among the first  sources discovered by someone searching a song?  CVB’s site offers lyrics, notes, guitar tabs (all free); and the user just might, I don’t know, learn something about the band and discover more tunes he or she likes.  That’s connecting with fans; but the company that owns the only search engine to speak of and the only ad server to speak of doesn’t really support traffic directed in this way.

So, as a legal layman but active observer of these things, it seems to me Mr. Lessig’s presentation, though charming, contains at least two fallacious premises.  The first is that the positive aspects of remix culture are actually threatened by the copyright system; and the second is that remix culture is universally positive.  I don’t know of any cases in which rights holders are stopping “the kids” from singing the songs of the day on YouTube.  But there are plenty of cases in which adults are profiting from remixing culture in ways that benefit neither fans nor creators. While it’s almost rote these days to call everyone a shill, I don’t think this is very helpful. I prefer to assume intelligent people mean what they say and believe in their positions, and Lawrence Lessig is certainly an intelligent man.  Of course, that might be why his ideas are ultimately so dangerous.

© 2013 – 2015, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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