October 12, 2011  ·  Lessig

Like a fever, revolutions come in waves. And if this is a revolution, then it broke first on November 4, 2008, with the election of Barack Obama, second, on February 19, 2009, with the explosion of anger by Rick Santelli, giving birth to the Tea Party, and third, on September 10, 2011 with the #Occupy movements that are now spreading across the United States.

The souls in these movements must now decide whether this third peak will have any meaningful effect — whether it will unite a radically divided America, and bring about real change, or whether it will be boxed up by a polarized media, labeled in predictable ways, and sent off to the dust bins of cultural history.

In the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., championed a strategy of non-violence: that in the face of state sponsored and tolerated aggression, the strongest response was a promise not to respond in kind.

In this movement, we need a similar strategy. Of course a commitment to non-violence. But also a commitment to non-contradiction: We need to build and define this movement not by contradicting the loudest and clearest anger on the Right, but instead, by finding the common ground in our demands for reform.

So when Ron Paul criticizes the “Wall Street bailouts,” and attacks government support for “special businesses” with special access, we should say, “that’s right, Congressman Paul.” Bailouts for the rich is not the American way.

And when Rick Santelli launches a Tea Party movement, by attacking the government’s subsidies “to the losers,” we should ask in reply, what about the subsidies “to the winners” — to the banks who engineered the dumbest form of socialism ever invented by man: socialized risk with privatized benefits. What, we should ask Mr. Santelli, about that subsidy?

Or when Republican Senator Richard Shelby tells NBC’s Meet the Press that the message in bank reform “should be, unambiguously, that nothing’s too big to fail,” we should say that’s right, Senator, and it’s about time our Congress recognized it.

Or when Sarah Palin calls GE the “poster child of crony capitalism,” we should say “Amen, Mamma Grisly”: For whether or not we are all believers in “capitalism,” we should all be opponents of “crony capitalism,” the form of capitalism that is increasingly dominating Washington, and that was partly responsible for the catastrophe on Wall Street in 2008, and hence the catastrophes throughout America since.

We should practice “non-contradiction,” not because we have no differences with the Right. We do. We on the Left, we Liberals, or as some prefer, we Progressives, have fundamental differences with people on the Right. Our vision of that “shining city on the hill” is different from theirs. Our hopes for “We, the People,” are more aspirational. More egalitarian. More ideal.

But even though our substantive views are different, we should recognize that we have not yet convinced a majority of America of at least some of our fundamental views. And that in a democracy, no faction has the right to hold a nation hostage to its extreme views, whether right or not. We should fight in the political system to win support for our Liberal views. But we should reject the idea that protest, or violence, or blackmail are legitimate political techniques for advancing views that have not yet prevailed in a democratic system.

Instead, we should use the energy and anger of this extraordinary movement to find the common ground that would justify this revolution for all Americans, and not just us. And when we find that common ground, we should scream it, and yell it, and chant it, again, and again, and again.

For there is a common ground between the anger of the Left and the anger of the Right: That common ground is a political system that does not work. A government that is not responsive, or — in the words of the Framers, the favorite source of insight for our brothers on the Right — a government that is not, as Federalist 52 puts it, “dependent upon the People alone.”

Because this government is not dependent upon “the People alone.” This government is dependent upon the Funders of campaigns. 1% of America funds almost 99% of the cost of political campaigns in America. Is it therefore any surprise that the government is responsive first to the needs of that 1%, and not to the 99%?

This government, we must chant, is corrupt. We can say that clearly and loudly from the Left. They can say that clearly and loudly from the Right. And we then must teach America that this corruption is the core problem — it is the root problem — that we as Americans must be fighting.

There could be no better place to name that root than on Wall Street, New York. For no place in America better symbolizes the sickness that is our government than Wall Street, New York. For it is there that the largest amount of campaign cash of any industry in America was collected; and it was there that that campaign cash was used to buy the policies that created “too big to fail”; and it was there that that campaign cash was used to buy the get-out-of-jail free card, which Obama and the Congress have now given to Wall Street in the form of a promise of no real regulatory change, and an assurance of “forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness” — not of the mortgages that are now underwater. The foreclosures against them continue. “Forgiveness” — not even of the sins now confessed by Wall Street bankers, for our President has instructed us, no crimes were committed. “Forgiveness” — just enough to allow candidates once again to race to Wall Street to beg for the funds they need to finance their campaigns. The dinner parties continue. The afternoons at the golf course are the same. It’s not personal. It’s just business. It is the business of government corrupted.

There is no liberal, or libertarian, or conservative who should defend these policies. There is no liberal, or libertarian, or conservative who should defend this corruption. The single problem we all should be able to agree about is a political system that has lost is moral foundation: For no American went to war to defend a democracy “dependent upon the Funders alone.” No mother sacrificed her son or daughter to the cause of a system that effectively allows the law to be sold to the highest bidder.

We are Americans, all of us, whether citizens or not. We are Americans, all of us, because we all believe in the ideal of a government responsive to “the People alone.” And we all, as Americans, regardless of the diversity of our views, need to stand on this common ground and shout as loudly as we can: End this corruption now. Get the money out of government. Or at least get the special interest money out of government. And put back in its place a government dependent upon, and responsive too, the people. Alone.

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil” — Thoreau, 1846, On Walden — “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one striking at the root.”

If this fever is to have its effect, if this revolution is to have any meaning, if this struggle — and the carnival notwithstanding, it is an obvious struggle to sleep on the streets — is to have real consequence, then we all, Left and Right, must strike first at that root.

“It is the duty of youth,” they say Kurt Cobain said, “to challenge corruption.” He may have meant a different corruption, if indeed he uttered this poetry too. But whatever he meant, embrace his words. It is your duty to challenge this corruption. And once you have ended it — once we have restored a government that cares about what its people care about first, and not just its funders — then let us get back to the hard and important work of convincing our fellow citizens of the right in everything that is left.

  • http://sethf.com/infothought/blog/ Seth Finkelstein

    “Fair use” in America is the right to hire a lawyer

    A gem of a quote!

    the “Web” does not let you “legally link” to copyright material. Ask 2600 about the rights to link in America today

    Nit: For 2600, it’s not “copyright” material, it’s “circumventing” material. The outcome of the 2600 case didn’t hinge on the copyright of DeCSS itself.

    Intellectual Reserve, Inc. v. Utah Lighthouse Ministry, Inc. is a better example for copyright, though it’s not net-famous.

  • tomsong

    I will respond to this statement. “It is true Disney pays to use the Peter Pan story, but the real question stockholders should be asking the Disney Corporation is why.”

    Make no mistake, Eisner’s contempt for writers has been the source of longstanding backlash in the creative community. His leadership encourages Mousewitz executives to consider themselves to be actual authors.

    Using public domain materials is an excuse for Disney to chisel creatives. Experienced Hollywood hands will caution you not to take ideas into Disney. And not merely because of the non-negotaible lowball prices. They simply steal your idea and run with it.

    I agree that old Walt had a special genius, but the Halls of Eisner have a different feel. Eisner is no Disney. The transition to digital reverberates through the ranks of entertainment workers, and Disney/ABC cannot withstand the tsunami under a leader who despises technology.

    See LA Times today, for article entitled “Toontown darkens for L.A.’s animation artists, as computers and an overseas workforce overtake their future.”


  • Joseph Pietro Riolo

    Responsing to tomsong’s comment:

    While you are entitled to your opinion,
    I find it odd that you give a hint that
    it is wrong to copy (or to use your own
    word, “steal”) anyone’s idea and exploit
    it. In the U.S., ideas are not owned by
    anyone and anyone can use the ideas for
    anything. So, I ask you, what’s wrong
    with that?

    Joseph Pietro Riolo
    <[email protected]>

    Public domain notice: I put all of my expressions
    in this comment in the public domain.

  • Anonymous

    I believe you forgot “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996) based on a Victor Hugo novel, IIRC Hugo is not even cited in the Disney movie at all.

    Le livre, comme livre, appartient � l’auteur, mais comme pens�e, il appartient – le mot n’est pas trop vaste – au genre humain. Toutes les intelligences y ont droit. Si l’un des deux droits, le droit de l’�crivain et le droit de l’esprit humain, devait �tre sacrifi�, ce serait, certes, le droit de l’�crivain, car l’int�r�t public est notre pr�occupation unique, et tous, je le d�clare, doivent passer avant nous

    Victor Hugo about the balance between authors and public rights.


  • bigcitysmartass

    A little dissection of the Forbes review

    The Forbes’ review is going to be the rule, I think, and in response, certain points need to be fought on economic grounds. Forbes is spot-on in stating bluntly that “America’s greatest worldwide success” are due to “intellectual property.” Of course, if the writer were a Soviet citizen, they might have said something just as nice about Soviet economic control systems as well.

    Forbes: “At a time when intellectual property provides America’s greatest worldwide successes, overturning established international copyright principles to legalize infringers is like abolishing real estate law to help out squatters.” The analogy is valid, but if the writer were intellectually honest enough, he would have expressed some understanding that “real estate law” is just the natural extension of the ethnic cleansing and land divisions and grant policies that came in days before. Just as housing prices (in the Bay Area, especially) will never again be as low (relatively) as they were in the 50′s, so too will “international copyright principles” become overpriced and burdensome to the culture – only its the world culture this time.

    Forbes says “…technology has also given consumers powerful weapons of mass reproduction with strong potential for abuse.” Certainly the “abuse” they must be speaking of is that threat that people might aquire a ‘freedom from economics.’ That would be terrible – and in direct contradiction to the usual dogma that spurts the virtues US-run capitalism –maybe ‘centralized economic control system’ might be a term that the Forbes people might appreciate, but maybe not. Certainly they might see “abuse” as something that the consumer might perpetrate upon the proprietor, rather than something that the powerful might extoll upon the meek.

    Quoth Forbes: “The intellectual property issue of our time is how to balance the rights of creators and consumers.” I love how the Forbes type will deliberately omit any mention of the other logical beneficiaries of copyright law — namely inheritors, proprietors – private or corporate. Finally, Forbes proclaims: “Let’s make it clear: The artists who would benefit most from Lessig’s legal meddling are rip-off artists.” Am I blind, or is this an echo of “you’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists” ? It would certainly bode well for ‘Stalinist-style capitalism’ if the above Bushism were applied to global economics.


  • Anonymous

    Copyright is under attack today as never before. The new technologies of the Internet allow for perfect digital copies to spread around the world within hours. Already the music industry is being decimated as net users find that they can download virtually any song ever created, without paying a penny. As technology advances, the same will be true of music, novels, art, virtually everything copyrightable.

    Far from an era of overly strong copyright protection, we are entering a time when copyright will essentially cease to exist.

  • http://soufron.free.fr Jean-Baptiste Soufron

    Well, that kind of comments is really amazing but it is true that I keep convincing people, day after day, that copyright law are not some ethereal part of human rights but, more pragmatically, a very limited economical incentive monopoly!

    Keep on the good work Professor Lessig!

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/brucem/ Bruce

    It’s important to note that all reviews of Lessig’s books are being done by people in the media (i.e. writers) who by their very occupation make their living creating original works and fixing them in a tangible medium. In other words, all writers reviewing this book, as well as Radio and TV and even internet personalities doing the same, are biased.

    That they should not be biased is something they should learn from this book… but they won’t simply because at the end of the day the “copying my stuff is stealing from me” meme is where their opinion on the matter is going to be coming from. In other words, for many people this is a book that argues that anyone paid to review books doesn’t deserve to make money. Of course it’s not, but you’d have to read the book with an open mind to discover that fact.

  • Rob

    I think “extraordinary” is not one of the adjectives I would have chosen to describe Mr. Manes’ review. But IANAL. :)

    My copy of the book is on order from Amazon. Can’t wait to get it.

  • http://www.bennett.com/blog/ Richard Bennett

    I didn’t see any comments about the Internet in this review, so I’m wondering if you’re silent on that subject this time around. I hope not, because I love it when non-engineers sing the virtues of the Internet, to coin a phrase.

  • http://www.blackmask.com David Moynihan

    Not to nitpick, but, err, the Sword in the Stone, though Arthurian, was actually based on the book of same name by T.H. White, with the author getting a writing credit and, one assumes, royalties.

    White also got credit for Camelot.

    Saccharine as all get out, but the films did introduce a generation to Lance, Gwen and the gang.

  • JP

    Why arn’t Lessig’s books released under a Creative Commons license?

  • bruce

    JP – He just released a free, online, complete version of the book (pdf) with a creative commons license and just posted the URL to download it from. http://www.free-culture.cc/freecontent

    Lessig is no hypocrite.

  • Anonymous Animus

    Actually, Disney does not pay if it doesn’t suit them. Or more properly, they don’t care about ‘intellectual property’ if it isn’t convenient to corporate goals. Check out The Lion King then compare to Kimba the White Lion, a Japanese cartoon series from the 1960s. The Disney corp made an effort to acquire the rights, yes, but when they failed they went ahead and produced the movie. Apparently Disney corporate profits are more important than ‘respect for intellectual property’. The Japanese owners of the copyright were too polite to sue.

    Go to http://www.kimbawlion.com/ and click the “Lion King?” button in the navigation frame.

    So how is this any different from P2Per’s downloading their favorite songs across the net? Oh! I know, the P2Pers aren’t making any PROFIT from it. They are just enjoying the music and movies. Disney, on the other hand, is a PIRATE CORPORATION that has exploited ‘intellectual property’ that they did not own the rights to.

    Question, does Lessig know about this? Is it in the book?

  • Karl

    Stephen Manes is relentless in his personal flames on Lessig. I do say personal because look at what he has to say about Lessig

    According to Manes in a recent review, LEssig is a “moron” who is an “intellectual bully.”

    Manes critices Lessig over some of the Disney movies, and then totally misses the point about how Disney would reuse public domain material to make it their own.

    “In his bloggy rage after being taken to task by a mere non-lawyer,” Really, where exactly did Lessig sound enraged. Really I see alot of name calling, insults and personal attacks, but guess who is dishing it out.

    Stephen Manes is the real bully, and he should apologize.

  • http://x Jonas

    bruce: Please say free-of-charge when you mean that, since the book is not free in a Stallman sense.

  • m

    Peter Pan is governed by special legislation in the UK that effectively gives the owners (a hospital for sick children) immortal rights to charge royalties. Quite simply: if Walt Disney did not pay for royalties for Peter Pan in relation to products put onto the market in the UK, then it would be infringing the UK Copyright, Desgins & Patents Act 1988. This would be a good explanation for why they continue to pay for Peter Pan, but not for other works.

  • Anonymous

    Since when did “intellectual” become an insult? An odd accusation to lob in a finance magazine. Are they embarking upon a new program to rid themselves of “intellectuals?”

  • Howard B. Golden

    Stephen Manes’s review and redirect are obnoxious and over-the-top and filled with ad hominem argument and derision, as Forbes seems to like its articles to be. That said, however, I believe Prof. Lessig’s reply is disingenuous when he states repeatedly that, “It was obvious, I thought, that….”

    There is a true controversy here, and when I strip away the thick layers of insults and the bravado from Mr. Manes’s argument, I find something there that makes more sense to me than what Mr. Manes claims Prof. Lessig advocates. (I use this circumlocution because I have read only part of “Free Culture” so far, and I don’t accept Mr. Manes’s characterization of the book at face value.)

    In my opinion, both the book (what I’ve read so far) and the review suffer from their authors’ extreme assertions about their opposites in the controversy. At this point, I discount most of Mr. Manes’s review, but I am so far unconvinced that Prof. Lessig’s proposal to rollback copyright law to 1975 (plus additional restrictions) is better than what we have today.

  • http://percipere.typepad.com/media/ Peter Konefal

    Perhaps I grossly misinterpreted your march 20th response to Stephen Manes, but I wouldn’t describe your response as “blustering and bloviating”, or “bloggy rage” (Forbes, April 4th, 2004). Hmmm….

    If you’re response can be characterized as rage, then what of Manes two articles! The ratio of argumentative premises to rhetoric and name-calling is at best 50%…Someone’s upset, and it may not even be Manes, seeing as how he writes mostly about digital camera features and the like. Perhaps his editor told him to put you in your place….”Lessig is moron”? Please.

  • http://percipere.typepad.com/media/ Peter Konefal

    I certainly agree with you Karl. And the unfortunate thing is that it hurts Manes own argument, which has merit. For example, he essentially is arguing that putting the burden of obtaining copyrights on the author unfairly burdens creators, and “might help the big media he claims to detest by offering them the chance to poach material they once would have had to pay for” (Forbes, March 29th, 2004).

    The argument here is atleast plausible. He is ignoring of course, the opposite side of the issue, that if the burden is not on creators to protect their own work, then it falls (as it does currently) on follow-on creators and innovators to seek permission, oftentimes for works that rightly, should be in the public domain.

    Nevertheless, most reasonable people, in my view, would not read this article after the first few completely unnecessary paragraphs of insulting language (unless they completely believe the writers view). It damages the writers own credibility more than anything else.

  • DBL

    “Please say free-of-charge when you mean that, since the book is not free in a Stallman sense.”

    Great. Can you forward us all a copy of the Stallman dictionary, so that we can all adjust our speech accordingly?

    Did Stallman slap a GPL on the English language when I wasn’t looking?

    Free is free. Stallman’s ironic attempts to control this idea, notwithstanding.