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Free Culture: The Nature & Future of Creativity, by Lawrence Lessig

Free_cultureYou might think a book about the history and future of copyright law would be painfully boring.  If the book is Free Culture: The Nature & Future of Creativity, by Lawrence Lessig, you'd be wrong.  Lessig does a fantastic job of framing copyright with terms and scenarios everyone can understand.  On top of that, he's a very engaging writer, the type that can probably make just about any topic interesting.

Lessig explains how large media companies like Disney got their start in an era of very relaxed copyright rules and regulations.  In fact, Disney's classic Steamboat Willie was nothing more than a knock-off of Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr.  What would happen if you tried to do the same thing today and based your video on a Disney character?  You'd probably get a nice cease and desist letter from the folks at Disney.

One could argue that the IP policies that existed when Disney got off the ground needed some adjustments to fit today's content world.  Lessig points out where things have probably gone too far though (e.g., the ridiculously high financial penalties associated with peer-to-peer file sharing).  I'm not saying piracy isn't wrong.  Not at all.  As I've said before, stealing is stealing, but Lessig gives plenty of examples to show how the resulting penalties are more than excessive.

A main thrust of the book has to do with how Congress keeps extending copyright terms and that almost nothing is therefore allowed to move into the public domain.  He argued the case at the Supreme Court level but apparently lost because he couldn't show how the situation was hurting anyone.  He makes a good point that there are plenty of works in a state of limbo, not really in distribution but beyond the reach of the public domain because they're still covered by copyright term extensions.  I tend to agree with the Supreme Court though and find it hard to believe there are loads of derivative works opportunities that aren't being leveraged because of this.  That said, Lessig presents an interesting alternative copyright model where owners can opt in to extend the original term.

Lessig is also well-known for his work on the Creative Commons (CCL) initiative.  As I said in this post, I think the CCL is a valuable model and a nice alternative for certain uses.  Given Lessig's advocacy of the CCL though, I find it interesting that he doesn't use that model for this book.  That's a shame since there might be someone out there who wants to use portions of Free Culture to create a derivative work of their own.  (Although the CCL is more often associated with online content, it can also be used for offline works.)

Update: I got an from Lawrence earlier this morning explaining that Free Culture is indeed available under the CCL; there was an oversight and the printed book simply didn't reflect this fact.  You can access the content, including remixed versions, at this website.

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