April 10, 2005  ·  Lessig

So there’s a view about the file-sharing debate held by most people who don’t know anything about the debate. It is a view the recording industry likes most people to hold. It is a view far from anything anyone interesting is saying.

The view – call it the uninformed stereotype (US) view – goes something like this: that there are just two sides to this debate, those who favor “piracy” and those who don’t. Supporters of Grokster are people who favor piracy, and who are against artists.

On Thursday, at the NYPL, I had the extraordinarily pleasure of being on stage with Jeff Tweedy and Steven Johnson, for a discussion titled “Who Owns Culture?” The evening started with 15 minutes of me and my “powerpoint” (actually, Keynote), and then a 50 minute discussion with Tweedy and me, moderated by Johnson. There was then time for questions from the audience.

It was an extraordinary evening. I had the chance before to talk to Tweedy, so I wasn’t surprised. But he was extraordinary � funny, subtle, smart about the issues, and deeply passionate. Suffice it that neither he nor I (as is obvious to anyone on this page) subscribe to, or fit, within the US view. I explicitly denounced “piracy”; Tweedy — in context — said nothing to support the view that people should infringe the rights of other artists.

David Carr of the New York Times was at the event. He wrote a review. Everyone I’ve spoken to loved the piece. I think they loved it because it was a piece printed in the Times, and we’re a culture that loves attention more than accuracy.

The review says nothing inaccurate about me, or the views I expressed. But, imho, it is filled with quotes from Tweedy, taken out of context, to support the US view. Nothing in the article suggests anything was said at all contrary to the US view. One reading the piece would think, there they go again, those supporters of theft, and haters of artists.

I’m not sure why there needs to be a NYTimes, if its role is simply to reinforce what people already think, especially with pieces like this. God forbid the Nation’s paper of record should reflect something more subtle or complex than the crudest view of an important debate.

  • http://www.rfc1149.net/sam Samuel Tardieu

    Do you think that this is a deliberate strategy from the journalist or from the NYTimes? Or could it be that the journalist was not smart enough to figure out that what was said was different?

  • http://www.intertwingly.net/blog/ Sam Ruby

    Samuel: a good analysis of jounalistic bias can be found here, in particular:

    The news media are biased toward conflict (re: bad news and narrative biases below) because conflict draws readers and viewers. Harmony is boring.

  • http://human lessig

    Thanks, Seth. The original comments are here. I had an old version of the page open and didn’t see that it was the old version, so thought the comments were lost as well.

    And so responding to the comments about how I don’t/haven’t responded: You all read much too much into my silence. I’ve not seen my kid for any real time in almost 3 weeks. I got home from the last swing of this trip, at 9:30am on Saturday. For the rest of the weekend, save when he was asleep, I was with him and my wife. So before you all race into animated outrage about all my “preening,” can you please — literally — cut me a break?

    So, in the 30 minutes I have before my kid wakes up, why am I “frustrated” at Carr and the Times? It is not, ala Swartz, that I think there’s some deep (or not deep enough) conservative bias at the Times. I don’t think there is any lack of recognition or intelligence. I have a disproportionately positive view about journalists in general, and the Times in particular. What frustrates me about this article in particular is its lack of ambition. (again, notice the title to the post — “disappointment.”) There’s a simple story to write — one that reinforces stereotypes — and a hard story to write — one that shows how the stereotypes don’t match reality. My “disappointment” is that, again, the Times fits the former, when there was tons of material that would have supported the latter.

    I modified the post to emphasize something that should have been clearer originally: I don’t have any complaint about what was said about my stuff. I was moved to complain (and suffer endless complaints in my inbox about complainging about the Times) because of my view that the piece was unfair to Tweedy. One specific example — which I’m still waiting for the archive of the webcast to verify, but which someone else has verified for me so I’ll assert, with the reservation that I am going from memory — is that Tweedy did not say artists “don’t deserve to get paid again.” He was beginning a very funny riff about certain artists who don’t “need to get paid again” — a riff ending with him saying he would no longer take money when he had “$1 billion.” That was a joke. It wasn’t, as Carr reported, said “half-jokingly.” To say that it was “half-joking[]” is to say it was half-serious. And to suggest that it is half-serious is to suggest that artists shouldn’t be paid. That’s the US, reinforced.

  • http://gnuosphere.blogspot.com Peter Rock

    The view – call it the uninformed stereotype (US) view – goes something like this: that there are just two sides to this debate, those who favor “piracy” and those who don’t. Supporters of Grokster are people who favor piracy, and who are against artists.

    Yes, it is amazing how people frame issues as 2-sided. Some do it unconsciously because they are simply too lazy to think – while some actually do it purposefully – like a skilled but corrupt lawyer or politician. I have no respect for those who have shelves filled with CDs of unauthorized, p2p downloaded content – yet I support p2p file sharing. I don’t seem to fit the US view.

    Can we heal the mind that sees social issues only in binary terms?

    For me, a background in philosophy helps keep me objective. Many stereotype philosophy as useless as it doesn’t immediately present itself with “career opportunities”. But the integration of philosophical reflection into everyday life can be amazingly powerful.

    So, we can choose to accept the soundbytes Hollywood and major newpapers blurt out to shape the conscious mass, or we can actually sit down and investigate (perhaps not to the depth of Lawrence, RMS, or Siva, etc.) on our own and we will soon see that p2p file sharing is to be celebrated. Our intuition tells us it is not harmful. Our intuition says this technology is a natural extension of the Internet and belongs. Our intuition says that musicians and moviemakers will still have livelihoods regardless of what technology exists. Our intuition says that the movie and music industries will adapt and survive – like they have in the past when new technology has made it easier for individuals to share content.

    Anyone who takes the time to investigate on their own and looks without an agenda will see the facts. Their view will then rest on facts and not on self interest. The rest will inevitably join the Church of IP.

  • http://www.futureofmusic.org Jenny Toomey

    Larry,
    I read with great relief your blog this morning.

    After reading the Nytimes article yesterday I spent several hours with Peter Dicola, who was in town, trying to write something articulate but not too attacking about how disappointed I was with Jeff Tweedy’s comments.

    I’m so glad to now know that they were taken out of context of your conversation.

    Another missing context… the elephant in the room of these types of conversations…is the role that the infantalization of artists in matters of business plays in simplifying and antagonizing these debates.

    Jeff Tweedy is a well-loved musician who shows heart and bravery in his willingness to discuss these issues in public.

    In the last few years, largely due to the revealing documentary about his band, Wilco, �I am Trying to Break your Heart,� Tweedy has become a sort of poster child for artists who struggle against corporate structures to get their art out in the world.

    I am deeply sympathetic to Tweedy�s trials as documented in the film: the long, committed hours creating music; the great disappointment of a major label rejecting this music; the bureaucracy and soul searching that results from attempts to find another label; and the ultimate triumph he feels in signing a new deal and getting his music successfully out into the world. Yet, at the same time, I bristled at the futility of some of Tweedy�s choices when viewed in the broader context of the music community.

    As a rocker and someone who ran an indie label for years I am familiar with the difficulties and expenses associated with making records, booking tours and living as musician. I have watched thousands of my peers struggle with the same trials revealed in the �heart� documentary. I have dozens of friends who have signed similar major-label deals and experienced similar problems. I hold no grudge against artists who make the choice to try to move up the ladder despite the evidence of its predictable drawbacks. I see these choices as personal and above critique.

    Still, Tweedy�s actions, as depicted in the movie, showcase a common and frustrating dynamic. Tweedy signs the first major-label deal, gets screwed, and then�when it�s time for him to sign the second deal, (again signing his copyrights away for (gasp) money)� after much bluster, pain, �he does it without reviewing the documents.

    In one scene he comically thumbs through the hundreds of legally biding pages like it was a flip book announcing facetiously, �that looks about right� before he puts the pen to paper. The self-destructive gesture shows a sense of futility that pervades the artistic community. He is not out of the norm, but being uncurious and acting futile are traits antithetical to the critical thinking and energy needed to solve problems at the intersection of law, technology, and culture.

    I may be projecting, but I’ve seen so many artists reject business and technology questions as “overwhelming” only to completely flip and embrace that which they have rejected in full. And why not? If they haven’t taken the time to understand the technological changes or the details of the contract and the benefits and pitfalls associated with their range of choices, then it IS ONLY a simple choice of black vs. white…good vs. bad, copyright ownership vs. industry support…authenticity vs. success. Or maybe just Coke vs. Pepsi?

    It’s easy to embrace the illegitimate and irresponsible dichotomy when things get confusing. And once you’ve signed, well then you don’t have to think about it anymore.

    The NYTimes Tweedy quotes (taken for sake of discussion at face value) simply invert the irresponsible dichotomy between information circulation and artistic compensation, this time privileging circulation. Tweedy�s comments were entertaining, endearing and contained the same genuine honesty and flippant futility of his contract signing scene from “heart” so it’s hard not to see some element of those quotes as part of this pattern.

    When an artist volunteers to pay an audience to see him perform…we see humility, we see humor…but there is also a fatal element in that kidding on the square. There is a trace of insecurity or low self-esteem that is leaking through. There is an undercurrent that reveals, “…In a culture that doesn’t value artistic labor, my ‘work’ isn’t worthy of compensation.” Maybe this common thought process plays a part in why artists are forever signing away their rights and forever getting screwed.

    Stretching this metaphor to its full extension I believe a similar mechanism of powerlessness and low self-esteem is at work when the public allows the extension of copyright. I mean, who are they to understand or care about these complicated copyright issues or the value of the commons? Instead of thinking about the issue or the world they want to live in, they just choose sides.

    In a last point…and an ironical one… On Friday I sat on a panel with JP Barlow at the second Signal or Noise conference at Berkman. I expected JP would say the same entertaining, controversial, gadfly things I have heard him say for the past six years about the bottles going away and the creative destruction brought forth by the emerging digital landscape and how we should all embrace this change as positive.

    Instead he told a story about receiving a call from the Grateful Dead’s Business manager. JP had urged The Dead to make all their live shows available for free on Archive.org, and they had done so. Now, a bit down the line, with the band doing far less touring, and less recording, these live files are directly competing with their major source of income: the tracks available on itunes.

    The business manager asked JP what he should do about this conflict. JP said something I never suspected he would say. He said, “I’ll have to get back to you. I’m not sure what to do.”

    So on almost the same day that the Tweedy takes up the mantle for free and for circulation we have the vanguard of that position questioning (or at least uncertain about) the unintended outcomes of his years of advocacy.

    As your books have argued, society builds institutions whether we�re all paying attention or not. If we want certain types of institutions that support certain values we need to articulate those values and work to build those institutions.

    Culture and compensation are not mutually exclusive unless we sit back and let them become that way. I know you know that. It’s a shame the NYTimes article didn’t articulate your position more clearly. Keep up the good fight.
    xjtoomey

  • http://noyetidance.blogspot.com Jerry

    Does it help that we have a president basing his actions on: With Us or Against Us, Dead or Alive, Freedom Haters/Freedom Lovers?

    The pollsters for the media ask primarly yes or no questions, and thus we have enigmatic results and conclusions. The problem with the media is that they ask these questions based on preassumed conclusions, and when they find evidence to support it, they publish it.

  • Jay

    I think it’s worth considering that the NY Times got it right, and you (Dr. Lessig) are the one who has it wrong. Or at least, that that view is plausible enough to call the Times something other than clueless. I think one can argue, in short, that this debate really IS piracy vs. anti-piracy, and that the fact that a few intellectuals have deluded themselves otherwise does not change that simple, fundamental distillation.

    Perhaps your “more subtle and complex” version is actually a fallacy, and the Times has done his job in bringing clarity to this issue, even as others are trying to obscure it through “complexity.” Perhaps. I don’t really believe that, but considering that I have never seen a legal use of a P2P network first-hand, I think it’s fair at least to consider the proposition.

  • Chris

    I’m not sure what constitutes “first-hand,” Jay, but check out how Mandriva (formerly Mandrake) Linux has been distributing its latest versions to its club subscribers: BitTorrent. Each distro comprises about 3-6 CDs worth of data. I’m about to get my new version through BitTorrent for the third time…

    http://www.mandrivalinux.com/en/club/

  • http://www.senselessventures.com Senseless

    I’m not sure why there needs to be a NYTimes, if its role is simply to reinforce what people already think

    OMG you mean the press is not UnBiased in how news is reported?

    Next you’ll be trying to convince me everything on the internet might not actually be based on fact!

    Ps. I like the fighting spam bots attempt and having to type human in. I was so tempted to type BOT just to see what happened.