Lessig on Freedom: Use It or Lose It

Trying to rally the troops--will anyone do more than listen?

Technology conference keynotes tend to be as forgettable as press kits and often are produced by the same mill. But there are exceptions. One of the biggest ever was "Freeing Culture", a passionate half-hour call to battle by Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law at Stanford University and author of Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace and The Future of Ideas. The conference was the O'Reilly Open Source Convention 2002 in San Diego.

Lessig, who usually speaks without visual aids, not only added them for this talk, he elevated the art form in the process. The combined effect was exceptionally powerful. As a call for the defense of freedom, it was the geek culture equivalent of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech.

Not long afterwards, Leonard Lin, who recorded the speech on his computer's microphone from the audience, obtained the original visuals and put together an animated production of Lessig's speech. The result is on the web at randomfoo.net/oscon/2002/lessig.

Lessig opened with what he called his "refrain":

  1. Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.

  2. The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.

  3. Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.

  4. Ours is less and less a free society.

He followed with a history of copyright leading to 1774, when "free culture was born. In a case called Donaldson v. Beckett in the House of Lords in England, free culture was made because copyright stopped... For the first time in history, the works of Shakespeare were freed from the control of the monopoly publishers...That free culture was carried to America. That was our birth."

Lessig then described the gradual displacement of unregulated and "fair" use by endlessly extended copyright terms, as well as by a now-common assumption, driven by Hollywood, that copyright is an absolute form of property ownership. Then he chided the audience--a concentration of technologists who uniquely understand the nature of freedom and openness--for losing the battle with Hollywood for control of the copyright argument:

There's a congressman, J.C. Watts. He's the only black member of the Republican party leadership. He's going to resign from Congress. He's been there seven and a half years. He's had enough. Nobody can believe it. He says "I like you guys, but ... eight years is too much. I'm out of here." Just about the time that J.C. Watts came to Washington, this war on free code and free culture began. In an interview two days ago, Watts said, "Here's the problem with Washington. If you're explaining, you're losing." It's a bumper-sticker culture. People have to get it like that (snaps fingers). And if they don't--if it takes three seconds to make them understand--you're off their radar. Three seconds to understand--you lose.

This is our problem. Six years after this battle began, we are still explaining, and we are losing.

They framed this as a massive battle to stop theft, to protect property. They don't get why rearchitecting the network destroys innovation and creativity. They extend copyrights perpetually. They don't get how that itself is a form of theft--a theft of our common culture. We have failed in getting them to see what the issues here are. And that's why we live in this place where our tradition speaks of freedom, and their controls take it away.

I have spent two years talking to you, to us, about this. And we've not done anything. A lot of energy building sites and blogs and Slashdot stories; nothing yet to change that vision in Washington. Because we hate Washington. Who would waste his time in Washington?

If you don't do something now, this freedom you built--that you spend your life coding--this freedom will be taken away; either by those who see you as a threat and then invoke the system of law we call patents, or by those who take advantage of the extraordinary expansion of control that the law of copyright now gives them over innovation. Either of these changes, through law, will produce a world where your freedom has been taken away.

And if you can't fight for your freedom, you don't deserve it.

Lessig asked how many audience members had given money to the EFF. Many hands went up. Then he asked how many had given more money to the EFF than they had given to their local telecom for crappy DSL service. He counted four hands.

The message: we have to do more. And fast.

Even though victories might be won in the semi-near future (Lessig himself is arguing Edred vs. Ashcroft before the Supreme Court in October), the battle is sure to continue.

Here is a list of organizations fighting on Lessig's side:

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Open Source Initiative

Creative Commons

American Open Technology Consortium


Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.

email: doc@ssc.com


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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Re: Lessig on Freedom: Use It or Lose It

Anonymous's picture

The most common argument I hear when advocating less restrictive IP laws is:

"What about the [artist | coder | musician]? Don't they have a right to make money off their work?"

Unfortunately I haven't come up with a good come-back.

The reasoning is understandable given a possibly lengthy response of how individual contributions to community at large benefit the individual. However the average American will have difficulty quantifying the payoff. Does anyone have any quick witty come-backs to the "What about the [artist | coder | musician]" question?

I fear the IP/copyright crisis is only a symptom of a far greater crisis of America morality.

Re: Lessig on Freedom: Use It or Lose It

Anonymous's picture

I care about the [artist | coder | musician], I worry about the control maintained of the [artist | coder | musician]'s works after they have:

1) been bought by a unrelated entity,

2) the [artist | coder | musician] has been fired, downsized, ...,

3) the [artist | coder | musician] has retired (thus no longer has any control of his work (as if he did while employed),

4) the [artist | coder | musician] has died.

This continued control by heirs, assigns, corporate entities after the rights have been liberated from the creator is purly economic with no gain or control to the creator.

Who's rights are we protecting? With what justification? For how many years/decades/centuries?

Just some thoughts, and by replying in this forum, I have probably lost my rights to these also. I have not checked the copyright policy for this site/page.

Re: Lessig on Freedom: Use It or Lose It

Anonymous's picture

How about this for a slogan?

"Protect People, Not Companies!"

Re: Lessig on Freedom: Use It or Lose It

Anonymous's picture

Shakespeare is dead, so his rights to make money "off his work" or in any other way are quite limited.

Shakespeare's descendants, if any exist, have as much right as anyone else to make money off Shakespeare's work. They don't, and shouldn't, have the exclusive right to do so.

Re: Lessig on Freedom: Use It or Lose It

Anonymous's picture

Too bad this speech on freedom is exclusively rendered on non-free stuff at : PowerPoint presentation, Flash recording, and MP3 sound... :(

Free software users will have to rely on the text transcript...

> Free software users will

Anonymous's picture

> Free software users will have to rely on the text transcript..

I don't think so:

-> OpenOffice.org
-> Firefox/mplayer plugin

I think that's about all you need!


Anonymous's picture

> I think that's about all you need!

And the Flash plug-in for Firefox/Mozilla (which works under Epiphany as well).

Re: Lessig on Freedom: Use It or Lose It

Anonymous's picture

You know, you may just have uncovered something!

We need to SHOUT at those who made this stuff available in these formats, and ask them why! Why didn't you use free software to disseminate this important information?


Re: Lessig on Freedom: Use It or Lose It

Anonymous's picture

"Three seconds to understand--you lose"

What we need is a potent slogan.

How about "Stop plundering the Commons!"

The notion of the Commons is making a comeback. And it carries with it a lot of intellectual equity. If the Senator whose attention we're trying to attract is at least half knowledgeable in History and Law, he just might get it... in less than the stated 3 seconds.

Re: Lessig on Freedom: Use It or Lose It

Anonymous's picture

Here's a few, although not directly related:


(yes, I wrote some of them. :-) )

The most important point is to make it short and potent. "I oppose fundamentalist religious organizations" will not have quite the same effect as "Stop Religious Fundamentalism" or "Fundamentalism Kills." Short is good.

"If you're explaining, you're losing" Much easier for the RIAA or MPAA to say "(Cyber)Space Pirates Ate My Children!" Then again, "Hollywood is stealing your rights" seems to work well enough. :-)


Re: Lessig on Freedom: Use It or Lose It

dave-sea375's picture

After listening to the presentation on the subject of copyrights, patents and freedom, I have come to another conclusion: This issue needs to be brought to
the attention of
more than just people in technology industries.

I believe that there are not enough
non-technical citizens who are aware of the impact that this trend will have on them.
This subject does not seem to get much press coverage outside of forums that cater
to technology people. I don't believe we have much hope in stopping the current trend
in the U.S. unless the majority of U.S. citizens begin to understand how their
will be impacted by the kind of legislation that is currently being considered.
When I have tried to discuss the subject with non-technical people, they don't
that this is a big deal. I suspect that it would take a while for most of them
to actually
be directly effected by the restrictions.

How many people use VCRs today and how many of them are aware that steps are
already being
taken to phase them out? With legislation proposed to mandate the "gestapo"
chips in all
future recorders, any recording capabilities will provide little value to many
This is just one example. Many people in the technology industry
have covered
this and many other impacts that the current trends will have on our culture.

What can be done? I'm not sure how, but somehow the word must get out to more
A possible response to the "anti-terrorist" tactics currently being legislated
need something to parallel the anti-war protests during the VietNam war. How
else can
grassroots support be built to prevent the continued erosion of freedom in our

Re: Lessig on Freedom: Use It or Lose It

Anonymous's picture

This subject does not seem to get much press coverage outside of forums that cater to technology people.

Press Coverage is exactly the problem. The "Press" of modern times is under the control of the same media conglomerates that are pushing for copyright extension and DRM in the first place. As long as Disney/ABC or AOL/Time Warner/CNN or MS/NBC are delivering the news to the majority of the American public, don't expect the story to change.


File formats

Anonymous's picture

The talk may be downloaded from randomfoo.net which is very nice. But _why_ are all the file formats proprietary and/or covered by patents?

Flash ... Only binary commercial players. Am I overlooking something?

MP3 ... Encoders and decoders are covered by patents which are not automatically granted to free software projects (we are relying on their good will to not sue). Also, the file is using the checksum error protection which is useless (the player will still mess up in the corrupted blocks) and takes up space.

PowerPoint ... One of Microsoft's formats.

It may only be a slight inconvenience to us, but if we can't avoid these things in a talk about freedom in the computer age and saving the commons then we may be in more trouble than we thought!

Re: File formats

Anonymous's picture


Re: Lessig on Freedom: Use It or Lose It

Anonymous's picture

another comment is here.

Re: Lessig on Freedom: Use It or Lose It

Anonymous's picture

The problem I see is that the technology companies, instead of fighting back Hollywood, RIAA and MPAA, even try to work together with them, although they could probably mobilise more people.

A parallel I see is the automotive industry. When governments try to do things against cars, the automotive industry and car sellers have people who speak and lobby on their behalf.

I think that in the technology industry, the level of competition is so high and ferocious, that the technology companies can not come up with an overlapping institution which is sponsored by all of the industry and speaks on behalf of the whole industry.


Re: Lessig on Freedom: Use It or Lose It

Anonymous's picture

I have always wondered when someone would get close to discussing the application of conventional community organizing to his issue. So far, Lessig seems to have come close, but didn't go far enough. Until technologically-savvy people begin to understand that they MUST engage politicians, vote their convictions, and hold these people accountable, we can expect that every last draconian pathological piece of legislation and court action will happen.