“A free culture, like a free market, is filled with property,” writes a copyright expert. But, he adds, extremism in asserting rights in that property can kill a culture.
Consider Disney Corp., which regularly clamps down on artists who use the likeness of, say, Mickey Mouse for their own purposes. Now, Mickey has been around since 1928, born, Lessig (Law/Stanford Univ.; The Future of Ideas, 2001, etc.) argues, to the great magpie Walt Disney, who “ripped creativity from the culture around him, mixed that creativity with his own extraordinary talent, and then burned that mix into the soul of his culture. Rip, mix, and burn.” Fair enough, and it’s inarguable that many of Disney’s early creations were parodies of or commentaries on other films of his time. Try that today, though, and you’ll invite a lawsuit, for the big media have taken pains to secure legislation that extends copyright terms, and always in their favor; you wanna use Mickey, you gotta pay on Disney’s terms. “No society,” writes Lessig, “free or controlled, has ever demanded that every use be paid for or that permission for Walt Disney’s creation must always be sought. Instead, every society has left a certain bit of its culture free for the taking.” Until now, that is. The result: rampant piracy, ever-tighter commercial control over intellectual rights, and a derivative, commercialized, impoverished culture. Though no stranger to rhetorical excess (“every generation welcomes the pirates from the last”), Lessig quite sensibly suggests that copyright become harder to hold onto for long stretches, and that the emphasis of the law shift to a “some rights reserved stance,” particularly where the work in question is no longer actively sold on the market—an out-of-print book, say, or CD.
Provocative, and sure to inspire argument among the myriad lawyers who, Lessig hints, are the only ones who benefit from the current mess.