Lawrence Lessig – Elizabeth’s Quirky View

I lucky enough to attend Lawrence Lessig’s Keynote address at the Penn State 2008 Symposium last week. If nothing else, it was worth it to see the mashup of George Bush and Tony Blair singing Endless Love to each other (I can verify that Fox News watchers also thought this was hilarious).

On a more serious note, it was a keynote that inspired me think – sometimes on a Lessig track, and sometimes on my own track.

So Many Orphaned Works

I was amazed to find out that 75% of the volumes scanned by Google are “orphaned works”, that is under copyright, but out of print. That IS a lot of content under lock and key. You can read more about this line of thought at

Copyright Restrictions Can Both Inhibit and Liberate Creativity

Lessig made an excellent case on the need of allowing artists to incorporate past works – especially in terms of social criticism (see video above).

On the other hand…I know that NOT being able to use these works can ispire creators to greater heights of creativity. For instance, I wanted to demo a certain type of embroidery stitch, but couldn’t get permission to copy an embroidery design (or even buy it off of Amazon). So I ended up creating a design on my own to highlight the stitch – which I might not have done otherwise.

Copyright is one reason we have so many duplicate photos of the same object or technical drawings of the same concept. It’s often easier to make another version of your own then try to license it from someone else.

There are limits though. When Florence King (author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady) wanted to quote old song lyrics telling tales of “fallen women”, her publisher informed that they could not guarantee licenses because some songs may have been recently re-recorded and under new restrictions. Her solution at the time was to create her own lyrics within that genre, but from a research point of view…this was not ideal.

Professionals and Amateurs – An Old Dichotomy

Whenever I hear references to technology and history – I’m usually both intrigued and worried. I’m glad to know someone is looking to the past, but is it always the right metaphor? For instance…

Lessig discussed the “new” tension between professional creators (those who can get paid to create) and amateur creators (those who do it without getting paid). He quoted Sousa as warning that phonographs would “professionalize” music (read-only culture) while today we are seeing a “return” of amateur musicians (read/write culture).

To me though it’s not such a new dichotomy. It’s said that even the Celts required years of training for their bards (professional musicians), so the distinction of popular vs professional has been around a long time (at least since ancient Egypt had slinky flute girls in the palace). Similarly, the rise of the record and the camera gave rise to the garage band and the hobby photographer. The read/write mix persists even through the 20th century. You could argue that having access to professional caliber examples is good for the art community (unless it suppresses the traditional arts).

What is changing is that the amateurs are now getting the same distribution channels as the professionals (see next section).

It’s The Distribution System That Changed

I think the Internet revolution is really about distribution (I’m sure this is not an original thought, but the Internet is not facilitating a good citation search today). Because posting a file is so cheap – both amateurs and professionals can put their content on the Web in the same “channels”.

Before the Internet, professionals and amateurs had different ways of distributing their opera magna (that would be the plural of opus magnum). In modern era, only professionals were “published” on a large scale and only by companies who could afford the duplication equipment. Further back in time, the only way to access a high-level professional artist was probably to visit the capital (and maybe you had to know a rich patron or someone in the palace).

Amateurs or popular works were usually distributed on a more local level. Maybe you attended a local concert or saw a hex sign painted by a local artisan. A non-elite would see these the most, but only those styles and genres for their particular region.

But today – something on the Internet could be either “amateur” or “professional” and this is something that has its pluses and minuses. Lessig noted the pluses for amateurs (and saavy professionals), but studios who are used to making profits by publishing are NOT seeing the benefits right now (hence the copyright crackdown).

Interestingly this merger of the channels has led to another common academic complaint – the need for students to develop the information literacy skills to distinguish the good stuff from the schlock. Sometimes it all connects in ways we never expected…

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