The nation’s leading cyberlaw scholar denounces “copyright extremism” and boldly re-envisions intellectual-property law for the digital age.
The Recording Industry Association of America is suing more than 17,000 people for illegal music downloads. A young mother had home movies of her dancing baby removed from YouTube because the distant background music by Prince triggered legal threats from Universal Music Corp. The growing ranks of artists using sampling or remix techniques to combine existing music and images into new creative works must choose between trespassing on other artists’ copyrights and a prohibitively expensive quest for clearance. Copyright infringement is overcriminalized, argues Lessig (Law/Stanford Univ.; Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, 2006, etc.), and in consequence is creating a generation of unrepentant scofflaws: young people used to acquiring music and movies with Napster and other file-sharing programs. They feel that copyright law makes no sense, and it is eroding their overall respect for the law. Lessig calls for sweeping changes to the archaic and industry-favoring copyright code: shortening the protected time period; decriminalizing noncommercial copying and file-sharing; and allowing remix artists to copyright their finished work. Alternatively, he promotes a new type of license, available free from a group he helped found called Creative Commons, which helps artists easily give away or sell their work, especially digitally, with “some rights reserved.” Finally he shows how Web practice has vastly outpaced the legal code, contending that corporate culture must adapt in order to take full advantage of this powerful new economic engine. Case in point: the teenage webmaster of a Harry Potter tribute website and chat room, who defended her site from an assault by Warner Bros.—and convinced the film company’s lawyer that her members were providing free marketing, not diluting the Potter brand.
In the best tradition of legal advocacy: a penetrating analysis; a moral appeal that addresses rather than dismisses commercial concerns; and a concrete, commonsense call to action that anyone with Internet aspirations needs to hear.