Lessig on Freedom: Use It or Lose It

by Doc Searls

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

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