March 11, 2008  ·  Lessig

At the Stanford “Legal Futures” conference last weekend, I joined a panel with author Andrew Keen titled “The Future of Professional Media.” I hadn’t planned to be on a panel with Andrew, but the conference had a FOO structure, and when I left the night before, he was the only one on the panel. Being a good host, I signed up so he wouldn’t be alone (smile…).

As I’ve written here before, I’ve always been unsure about whether Keen is a know-nothing, or the greatest self-parodist of our time. For while his book, The Cult of the Amateur, is a tirade against “amateur culture” — ridiculing its sloppiness, errors, and lack of standards — the book itself is riddled with sloppy, basic errors that betray either an oblivious author or a publisher without standards. And thus the self-parody: demonstrating “professional” media can be as bad as the bad of the “amateur” media.

People who knew Keen, however, told me my self-parody theory was bunk. That Keen wasn’t a brilliant anything; that his book was simply sloppy. Yet his latest missive again makes me wonder — are we all just missing the extraordinary comic genius in this failed Internet entrepreneur?

Here’s the clue: My criticism of Keen’s book Saturday tracked the criticism above. I read a series of quotes from the book to support my claim that the book was full of simple, basic errors. Among the passages I quoted was this:

In a twisted kind of Alice in Wonderland, down-the-rabbit-hole logic, Silicon Valley visionaries such as Stanford law professor and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig and cyberpunk William Gibson laud the appropriation of intellectual property.

I asked Keen if he had ever read anything I had written. He said he had. I asked him to name one instance where I had ever “laud[ed] the appropriation of intellectual property.” He sat silently. I pressed. He had no answer. He could name no instance of my “laud[ing] the appropriation of intellectual property” because that’s not my schtick. Indeed, as I repeatedly insisted in Free Culture (see pages 10, 18, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 139, 255), what others call “piracy” I was emphatically not writing to defend. Indeed, I criticized it as “wrong.”

Now whether mine is a sensible view or not, or a view consistent with the Free Culture Movement or not, is an argument had on this page many times. But the Keen-relevant point is that my claim was a claim about a fact. He alleges I “laud the appropriation of intellectual property.” I claim I do not. That’s a true/false claim. And so in the tradition of the professional truth-seeker, so threatened, Keen believes, by the wisdom-of-the-crowds Internet, one would think that the disagreement would be resolved by someone actually reading something, or at least providing some citation. No doubt it was unfair to call Keen out on stage. He didn’t come with his notes. Why would I expect him to be able to identify anything in my work at all? But after the conference, perhaps. Maybe then Keen could defend the assertion that I flatly denied.

And indeed, he now has — but the interesting (self-parody point) is how.

In a blog post, Keen again charges me with lauding the appropriation of intellectual property. But what’s the source for his renewed charge? Did Keen go back to the books? Or back to his notes? Does he offer a quote, or a passage to exemplify this defining feature of my work?

No. The truth of this matter for Keen is resolved by asking a bunch of people at the conference whether in fact I “laud the appropriation of intellectual property.” They said I did. And that resolves it for Keen.

That’s right: the truth comes from the wisdom of the crowd. These unnamed sources confirm it for Keen. And that’s all the confirmation he needs. No need to actually read anything. The crowds have spoken. And now this “professional” trusts the crowds.

I have no doubt that many believe I “laud the appropriation of intellectual property.” That’s in part because people like Keen say I do, and on balance because most people (sensibly) have better things to do than to struggle through the turgid prose of an academic.

But the relevant point here is this: any author who aspired to the high standards that Keen is so keen to laud would suss the truth of this matter the old fashioned way — by reading a book (or two). Were Keen to do that, he’d see that most of the wry humor in his blog post misses the mark because I don’t in fact hold the views that he holds me up to (I have nothing against professional media content; I love Hollywood movies; and I have never doubted the significance of professional media: my praise of amateurs is not a criticism of the professional). What his writing instead demonstrates is something only the most cynical would believe — that the aim of this “professional” writer (and his publisher) has little to do with the truth, much more to do with selling books.

Good luck in that, Andrew.

  • Crosbie Fitch

    If there’s any man who will have done more than any other to prolong the lifespan of copyright legislation more than a century beyond its 200 year use by date (1910) by popularising its use by impotent self-publishers, it’s Lawrence Lessig.

    Andrew Keen as an inept IP maximalist is a perfect foil for any crypto maximalist in need of distraction.

  • Seth Finkelstein

    Well, I was going to say “Don’t feed the trolls”, but maybe that’s not helpful for me to say.

    Regarding “What his writing instead demonstrates is something only the most cynical would believe — that the aim of this “professional” writer (and his publisher) has little to do with the truth, much more to do with selling books.” – that’s the essence of this status system. The name of the game is to GET ATTENTION. It DOES NOT MATTER if something is the truth. Someone can write the truth on an obscure blog off in a corner and it won’t get read. It’s necessary to *G*E*T* *A*T*T*E*N*T*I*O*N* somehow to have any influence if the writer doesn’t already have power in some other fashion.

    Note this is why I keep writing that The Internet is a very poor tool for fighting corruption. Having the truth available matters little if it’s more popular to tell an untruth.

  • David K

    I don’t even understand the first commenter’s comment, so consider my comment accordingly. Perhaps Mr. Keen means to say that Mr. Lessig lauds the process by which intellectual property falls out of copyright and into the public domain.

  • Seth Finkelstein

    For more on the attention-dynamics, see my old column:

    Has Britannica co-opted blogging or has it been corrupted by it?

  • joe

    I truly don’t understand Keen outside of SethF’s attention theory.

    If anyone’s interested and in the East Bay, Keen will debate Paul Duguid one week from tomorrow at the UC Berkeley School of Information:

  • Shannon

    Keen is silly, no doubt, but on the face of it I would agree with his statement re: appropriation, although It depends what one means by the term. Perhaps you have a particular legal understanding, but in the art world it includes the sort of audiovisual collages that I’ve seen in your presentations.

  • Steve Baba

    Let it go. You realize you wasted hours of your time on a semantic argument, but likely reinforce the adage, that even a lawyer who acts as his own lawyer…

    I laud the appropriation of intellectual property is not a true-false fact but can mean anything from encouraging the breaking of current copyright lawyers to legally reducing current copyright laws.

    And if Lessig was really worried about his image respecting copyright laws, Lessig on his own blog should not link to a Wikipedia page, marked by Wikipedia itself for possible copyright violation that contained the entire text to a Monty Python movie.

  • foto

    I truly don’t understand Keen outside of SethF’s attention theory too

  • Leona

    Kudos, Mr. Lessig! It delights me to see anyone debunking that backwards grump and/or his book!

    While reading The Cult of the Amateur, I was so infuriated by Keen’s rant about the Internet hurting artists and indies more than the major labels that I was inspired to contact the members of the Scene Aesthetic, a band he alternately calls the Sound Asethetic, to ask how they felt about the way they’d been represented in his polemic. My correspondence with one half of the duo suggests that it is his Mormon mission in Argentina, and not their use of MySpace to build an audience, that is affecting their growth right now.

  • Robert Link

    Commented at Keen’s site, awaiting moderation. Copied same to my own site, just in case. Quoting in relevant part:

    On the one hand, take the case of using a story in the public domain and turning it into the world’s first full length animated feature film. On the other hand take the case of forging a Van Gogh. Both appropriate intellectual property. One does so with perfect legitimacy, the other thereby commits the crime of fraud.

  • fredblotnic

    not that i always follow what you say i do believe that keen is inaccurate in anything he states. His cult of the amateur is chock full of mistakes, assumptions, and opinionated rhetoric.

  • Harry Porterfield

    Next thing you know he’ll say you suppress free speech and eat babies. All he has to do is talk to people who want to use strong copyright to protect Mickey Mouse, and they will say you want to take away their constitutional right to that IP. Oh, and that eating babies stuff, well… if you are going to lie… lie big.

  • Jason Mittell

    As I understand it, Keen is arguing that by founding CC, Lessig is lauding the appropriation of intellectual property (key phrase from his blog post: “After all, everybody knows that, as the rabble-rousing founder of Creative Commons, Larry has lauded — implicitly or otherwise — the appropriation of intellectual property.”).

    There is of course a key word missing here: Lessig is lauding the authorized appropriation of intellectual property. CC allows people to appropriate their content by granting those rights explicitly.

    By extension, I laud the erosion of personal property rights by letting people into my house.

    In the unauthorized appropriation of a great American philosopher, what a maroon…

  • Justin Lincoln

    I tend to agree with Shannon. I’ve been avidly following your work for years now and certainly side with your views more than Keen’s. However in parts of your presentations…for example the great one at TED…you do bring out examples of mash-ups as laudable media interventions. That type of media does seem to be based on appropriating intellectual property. Those kinds of appropriations are very exciting to me….but perhaps I need help parsing your views on this complex issue. Could you write a bit more explicitly on where you stand concerning the ethical/legal status of mash-ups?

  • Steve Baba

    And if the case were a clear-cut as Lessig claims, Lessig would have a clear-cut libel case
    against Keen’s deep-pocket publisher. This was one of Keen’s arguments in his book.

    But I would take a non-legal guess, that a lawyer not personally involved, would tell Lessig that he does not have a clear-cut case or even a good libel case.

  • Brendon J. Wilson

    Has anyone considered that there might be a much simpler explanation? Namely, that neither Keen, nor those that he claims he queried at the conference, know the meaning of the word “laud”. Maybe they’re confusing it with “loathe”?

  • Geof

    Appropriate: “to take exclusive possession of”. That’s the first definition of appropriate from Webster. Appropriation is exactly what intellectual property laws enable, and scholars often describe it this way. Some critique copyright for permitting or encouraging appropriation from the commons.

    The third definition in Webster is “to take or make use of without authority or right”. So Keen’s statement could be taken either way. But from my reading of Lessig, he has consistently upheld the principle of copyright. Given that appropriation is the very thing that copyright does, I find it a little scary is that I appear to be the only one who initially thought of the other interpretation and therefore found the claim confusing.

  • Pete Tiarks

    Brendon – good theory, but I think it’s more that, for all he shouts about it, Keen doesn’t really understand the meaning of the terms “Intellectual Property.” Reading CoA, and listening to that quote, it looks like Keen just thinks it means “idea.”

    This amateurish misunderstanding could possibly be cleared up by a discussion with some sort of expert. You know: lawyer, legal scholar, law professor – something like that…

  • Wee Willie

    Keen is lauding, implicitly or otherwise, bad research and faulty reasoning. I haven’t read his book, but I am a great authority and besides, everyone knows Keen is a dick.

  • patrock

    “And if the case were a clear-cut as Lessig claims, Lessig would have a clear-cut libel case”

    But isn’t this possibly the reason that anyone is involved in this debate. It all seems as though ones use and interpretation of language differs from another’s use and interpretation of language. Lies of omission, loopholes, interchangeable definition are what legal proceedings are all about.

  • David

    @ Steve Baba, its possible that he doesn’t have a clear-cut legal case for libel, but equally possible that he is instead exercising the under-used prerogative not to settle every disagreement between adults in a courthouse. He seems to be enjoying the defeat-in-public-debate model much more and its costing him a good deal less in legal fees.

  • James D. Newman

    I’ve read a lot of Keen — and he is just playing to a particular market. He is speaking to conservatives who are frightened of the sexual content on the internet, to academics whose toupees go crooked at the mention of Wikipedia. He speaks to the same crowd that was afraid of “jungle music” and the erosion of the “Cannon” and the extension of marriage privileges to inter-racial couples and homosexuals.

    You will accuse me of being too broad — and certainly evaluated claim by claim I have been too broad — but, pay attention now, Keen is making an EMOTIONAL argument — and he thinks that everyone who opposes him is making the opposite emotional argument. Lessig is making a (perhaps emotionally motivated) intellectual argument — and Keen is probably not capable of recognizing the distinction — or he would categorize it as splitting hairs. (with us or agin us?)

    Keen is using the language of marketing — but he isn’t just selling books. The same sloppy thinking goes on at Fox, at NPR, at the State Department.

    I believe it is important to slow the conversation down when encountering people painting in such broad strokes, and do exactly what Lessig did — evaluate the claims of fact — and expose the empty advertising claims (with CHLOROPHIL!) for what they are. It makes the point, by demonstration, that there is another way to use language.

  • Drue Kataoka

    Thank you Prof. Lessig for braving the new frontiers. Bill Fenwick and I enjoyed talking with you after the panel and we’ve posted our response at here:

    This includes a short video of the panel where I captured part of the “Wonderland” quote.

  • Steve Baba

    Someone above indirectly posted the link to the debate.

    You can draw your own conclusions, but to me it looks like Lessig is using a cheap legal trick springing an unexpected question, he should have brought he notes, right, and Lessig is laughed down when giving his explanation to why not sue.

    Since virtually no lawyers publicly advocate breaking laws, and even legal organizations such as the Pirate Party does not advocate illegal piracy, I find it hard to believe that except for people too close to the situation and naive pirates hearing what they want to hear, would read “laud the appropriation” as “laud the illegal appropriation.”

  • Oliver Shulman

    It is my understanding that Lessig only eats poor babies, Swift-ly.
    Keen seems a *G*E*T* *A*T*T*E*N*T*I*O*N* (to quote Seth Finkelstein – without permission) cartoon drawn on the back of a British business card and not too.

    To imply, in these comments, that Lessig is even considering a libel case is absurd. Where is that coming from? Read the post.

    Keen’s arrogant and feeble incompetency is not news.
    Watch a couple of the debates between Keen and Weinberger from 2007. Weinberger’s keen restraint is laudable. Keen makes no sense whatsoever, ever.

  • Cameron Fredman

    I’m sorry Larry, but I spoke to some unreliable unnamed sources and it turns out you do laud the illegal appropriation of intellectual property, regardless of what you may write, speak, or think about the matter. (I kid.)

  • Nick

    My favorite way to discredit Keen is that: he is the self-proclaimed expert on how self-proclaimed experts should not be relied upon. Truly, a parody. Please, everyone, don’t was your time reading him or listening to or watching a video of him at a conference (especially the hour long ones). It will waste your time and make you dumber. And don’t link to him.