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Part 1-Review: “Free Culture” – Lawrence Lessig

5 March, 2009

This is not going to be a typical review. First of all, I’m not assigning it a number rating. Books, especially non-fiction ones, can’t really be rated on that type of scale. (Neither, really, can movies, but it is slightly more easy to do it for them.) The topics, the styles, are just so different that it’s really impossible to compare things, at least books from genres so disparate as the two or three I have reviewed on this site. But this is not all that’s going to be different. This is going to be a review more of the subject matter than the book itself. It’s essentially a list of thoughts that I had while reading, vaguely molded into a coherent whole. Often, I am going to refer to page numbers when I do this. Well, that’s stupid, you might think, I’ll have to go check the book out of a library to see what he’s referring to. But no! Remember, this is Free Culture we’re talking about. The entire book is available in pdf format (as well as an audiobook, etc.) from the book’s site. Granted, I understand that this is still kind of obnoxious, so I’ll do my best to describe what’s going in the book around my comments.

Some of the most interesting thoughts in the book were his thoughts on the blogging culture. In 2004, blogging was a big thing, but not, it seems, as big as it is nowadays. Yet Lessig’s ideas on what blogging was for—what it should be for—were pretty well developed. He writes on page 42 that the timing of blogging really helped in making it such a good medium for discussion of possibly controversial topics. It was not instant, like a true discussion, and yet people could share their opinions, comment, jsut as if it were. It is this asynchronicity that gave people the courage to say what they truly felt about a subject—a political decision, for example, or something like climate change or abortion. Authors didn’t have to worry about being immediately shot down by someone from the other side, or being shut up. They could post what they wanted, when they wanted, and had sufficient time (if they decided to use it) to edit, proofread, make sure that they were saying what they want to say. This, for me, extends into more run of the mill areas than politics and other controversial topics. For me, that asynchronicity is what I love about blogging. you say what you want, and you can make sure everything is there, and people read it, and give you comments. But, if you’re sharing something of yourself, for instance, you don’t have to be shy, you can write it down all in good time, and not have to be face to face when people laugh at you or sympathise with you. I think this is why authors on platforms like Livejournal and so on tend towards self-reflective angst.

Lessig also sees bloggers (or at least, saw them) as heroes, as performing a noble deed. They dared to stand up to the government, criticize poor decisions, because they did not have to do it in public. And yet, their writings reach the public. Bloggers could get things done, start critical discussions, because they had this new media which could (well, usually) not be quelled. I agree with him, in theory. However, I don’t think this part really works in practice. Yes, there are biting political blogs, and yes, there are the amazing blogs written from the streets of Baghdad telling how things really are, and so on, but there are also blogs like Cake Wrecks, or, let’s be honest, this one. Not everyone writes a blog for a noble purpose. But then again, I don’t think Lessig would ever argue that that was the case. And, those that do write heroically, as it were, can and do help the world with it.

One of Lessig’s main points is that changing technology requires changing laws, values, etc. Regulations based on one type of system cannot simply be carried over to something completely new and be expected to work. On page 146, he cites the example of the company Video Pipeline. This was a company that supplied those annoying videos that constantly played in Videosmith and other VHS rental stores. They had clips from upcoming movies, to entice you to rent or buy them. This was perfectly legal. Video Pipeline bought their first copy of the clips, and from that point, Disney (the supplier), had no jurisdiction on what happened. However, with the beginning of internet video, Video Pipeline moved online, too. Now Disney had a problem. Although what the company was doing was in effect exactly the same as before—buying from Disney, distributing the video to others to make profit both for VP and for Disney itself—the technology had changed, and a problem with a rules came up. Now, this is something I’ve never thought of before, really. Whenever you watch something, read something, really do anything on the internet, you are making a copy of that material. Even if it gets deleted once you are finished, it was still copied on to your computer for at least the duration of the viewing. These copies created when people watched the online VP tapes were under the jurisdiction of Disney. And violated the copyright of Disney. So Disney shut down VP for breaking the law. Even though they were doing the same thing as before, and indeed, probably reaching more people, and truly raising sales for the big company. This is a clear case study of laws and customs needing to change with technology.

But this was not limited to movies. Books, too, had their issues. One of the first e-readers had a free copy of “Alice and Wonderland” available to download on their site. This was written about by Lessig because it had the awkwardly phrased regulation that “This book cannot be read aloud,” (meaning it can’t be read by the computer, but people got outraged). This is not actually why I remarked on it. Rather, two of the other regulations was that it was illegal to give or lend the book to anyone. This confuses me. Why is that illegal, if it is available for free on the website? Isn’t lending someone the file exactly the same as giving them the link to the site, so therefore legal? Or alternately, was it illegal to tell anyone about the free books available on the website?

As I have now surpassed 1000 words, and have a lot more to go, I have decided to serialize this review. Look for probably two more parts in the next few days. Also, for interest’s sake, I’m going to post my notes for this review on the new page of the site, Works in Progress. It might be interesting for you to see where I’m going with this, and where I’m coming from.

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