December 24, 2006  ·  Lessig

“Radical” changes in Washington always have this Charlie Brown/Lucy-like character (remember Lucy holding the football?): it doesn’t take long before you realize how little really ever changes in DC. The latest example is the Dems and IP issues as they affect the Net. Message to the Net from the newly Democratic House? Go to hell.

As everyone knows, one issue critical to those who are making the Net interesting (for politics at least) is IP reform. Not “reform” in the sense of the last decade (e.g., Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, DMCA, NET Act, etc.), but real reform designed to make IP laws work sensibly in the digital age. Real reform — not the piddly full-employment-act-for-lawyers reform proposed by the Copyright Office for “orphan works,” or the puny reform suggested for digital libraries. Instead, reform that tries to fit the legitimate objectives of copyright — to assure that artists have the incentives they need to create great new work — into the contours of digital technology.

To craft that reform would require real work. I don’t think anyone has a clear picture of what would be best yet. But what is clear is that the war on technology of the last decade must come to an end. And the efforts by content holders to leverage their power over rights they can’t even prove they own (see, e.g., the Google Book Search battle) into control over the architecture of the net must be stopped. No one should defend “piracy.” But no one should believe that the way the law currently defines “piracy” makes any sense at all.

So is there any hope for such reform from the Democrats? Word from Washington so far: Fat chance. As reported in the LA Times two weeks ago (registration required but hey, it’s LA), the crucial House IP subcommittee will be chaired by Hollywood Howard (Berman) — among the most extreme of the IP warriors. It is this committee that largely determines what reform Congress considers. It is the Chairman who picks what voices get heard. And while Berman is a brilliant man — whose brilliance could really have been used in the problems facing the mid-east — his brilliance has not yet been directed towards working out the problems of IP and the Net with any view beyond the narrowest of special interests.

This is like making a congressman from Detroit head of a Automobile Safety sub-committee, or a senator from Texas head of a Global Warming sub-committee. Are you kidding, Dems? The choice signals clearly the party’s view about the issues, and its view of the “solution”: more of the same. This war — no more successful than President Bush’s war — will continue.

No doubt, there are Net issues beyond copyright — surveillance, net neutrality, etc. But I suggest this choice is an important signal about this party (and I’m afraid, any party). I once asked a senior staffer of a brilliant Senator why the Senator didn’t take a stronger position in favor of Net Neutrality. “No Senator remains a Senator opposing an industry with that much money” was his answer.

And so too here. The Dems have looked at the potential “return” from the activists on the Net. They’ve considered the kids being sued by the industry (including the kids running MySpace, and maybe soon, YouTube), and the kids creating amazing new (but presumptively illegal) mashups and remixes, and they have compared that value to the party with the value promised by Hollywood. Result: the 20th Century continues to rule.

Dems to the Net: “Thanks for the blogs. And please continue to get outraged by MoveOn messages. But don’t think for a second we’re interested in hearing anything beyond the charming wisdom of Jack Valenti. We appreciate your support. We appreciate your money. But come on — you’re all criminals. Don’t expect your criminal ways to be taken seriously by an institution as respected as the US Congress.”

October 31, 2006  ·  Lessig

So as noted here before, Britain is considering extending its copyright term for recordings from 50 years to 95 years — including both existing recordings and recordings in the future. (Remember, we increased our copyright term to “harmonize” with the Europeans; now the Europeans are increasing their copyright terms to “harmonize” with the US. Will this cycle end? Of course not.)

The ippr just released a very smart report about IP issues generally. It identifies well the errors in this pattern of extension. (The report is not free for downloading (a problem it didn’t note), but an executive summary is here.) And a new activist group in Britain, the UK Open Rights Group will soon release a short policy paper.

But the real problem with this debate is that the proponents for term extension are (1) sexy media figures who (2) only discuss the issue in well choreographed events that allow no real opposition to their views to be heard, while (3) the press never adequately covers events where the issue is properly, and adequately, addressed.

Exhibit one in support of the above: This piece by a favorite of this page, Andy Orlowski (remember his really nasty piece about my representing Hardwicke in the boychoir case, ending with: “Lessig has shown an ability to clutch defeat from the jaws of victory before.” No followup by Andy after the verdict.) Orlowski usually gets media issues right. But this piece is full of the most obvious errors. (E.g., he refers to “the estimates of economic Armageddon that term extenders propose – which may be £143m over 10 years, according to PriceWaterhouseCooper,” never pausing to actually analyze what this “Armageddon” is: The argument is that Britain hurts because a £143m tax is not imposed on the British people in order to benefit the likes of Sir Cliff. Talk about trickle down economics.)

But reporters just to report what they see. So I take it Orlowski didn’t see the full story. No surprise, since as he mentioned, the “panel discussing the issue was loaded with advocates for extending copyright terms, and only one dissenter.” Ah yes, Soviet style public policy discussion, again itself not remarked in Orlowski’s article.

The sexy will never stoop to debate this issue in a fair and balanced context so long as they get away with “debating” it in the sort of contexts they do. And they get away with it only so long as the press and politicians permit them to. So let’s let this permitting stop: Britain should demand a debate about these issues in a context in which both sides get a real and balanced opportunity to present the views.

(Meanwhile, don’t miss Jonathan Zittrain’s presentation at the Open Rights Group “Release the Music” event on November 13. Details here and here.)

I’m eager that an alternative get pushed into this debate. As mentioned before, MP Don Foster has suggested terms should be extended only for those who ask. For works whose copyright owners don’t ask, the copyright would pass into the public domain. I made a similar proposal to the Gowers Commission. It would be fantastic if Britain took the lead in this obvious compromise to an obviously mistaken policy — term extension for existing works.

Meanwhile, as a demonstration of the value of the public domain, if you’re not in the US, you can get access to this fantastic collection of 1500 LPs of classical music, in the public domain in Europe, but not in the US, digitized and made available by the EuropeanArchive. Don’t count on access to this anytime soon, United States: Nothing published will enter the public domain in the US through the expiration of a copyright term until 2019.

August 10, 2006  ·  Lessig

Denise Howell has a great post about the Washington Post’s plan to run a mash-up. According to the terms and conditions, as a condition of participating, the artists must agree to “grant and assign all right, title and interest in the Recording to” the Washington Post.

Good for the Washington Post — mash-ups are an important and valuable form of creativity encouraged (and democratized) by digital technology. But I believe that the artists who create them deserve to own and hold the copyright to their new creative work. And in my view, any self-respecting artist should refuse to participate in any sharecropping mash-up. You did the work. You should own the rights to the work you did.

January 17, 2006  ·  Lessig


I wrote this piece for the FT about the next war in copyright. If you’ve not seen AMVs, you should. Look here.

This will be the next big copyright war — whether this form of noncommercial creativity will be allowed. But there will be a big difference with this war and the last (over p2p filesharing). In the p2p wars, the side that defended innovation free of judicial supervision was right. But when ordinary people heard both sides of the argument, 90% were against us. In this war, the side that will defend these new creators is right. And when ordinary people hear both sides, and more importantly, see the creativity their kids are capable of, 90% will be with us.

I saw this first hand in the eyes of a father. From the FT piece:

But to those building the Read-Write internet, economics is not what matters. Nor is it what matters to their parents. After a talk in which I presented some AMV work, a father said to me: “I don’t think you really realise just how important this is. My kid couldn’t get into college till we sent them his AMVs. Now he’s a freshman at a university he never dreamed he could attend.”

These are creators, too. Their creativity harms no one. It is the heart of a whole new genre of creativity — not just with anime, but will all sorts of culture. If, that is, it is allowed.

Update: A relevant City of Heroes video on in-game IP.

January 13, 2006  ·  Lessig

The Washington Internet Daily (which apparently is not on the Internet) has a story predicting the Telecom Bill will pass the House this year. The only sticking point seems to be the “controversial” “net neutrality” proposal. Says Howard Waltzman, the committee’s majority chief telecom counsel, and “net neutrality” opponent: “We’re going to rely on the market to regulate these services and not have a heavy hand in government regulation.” Waltzman thinks net neutrality regulation would turn “broadband pipes into railroads and regulating them under common carriage.” As he explains:

“The reason the Internet has thrived is because it’s existed in an unregulated environment. Regulating… under common carriage would be a complete step backward for the Internet.”

So half right, but wholly wrong. For of course, when the Internet first reached beyond research facilities to the masses, it did so on regulated lines — telephone lines. Had the telephone companies been free of the “heavy hand” of government regulation, it’s quite clear what they would have done — they would have killed it, just as they did when Paul Baran first proposed the idea in 1964. It was precisely because they were not free to kill it, because the “heavy hand[ed]” regulation required them to act neutrally, that the Internet was able to happen, and then flourish.

So Waltzman’s wrong about the Internet’s past. But he’s certainly right about what a mandated net neutrality requirement would be. It would certainly be a “complete step backward for the Internet” — back to the time when we were world leaders in Internet penetration, and competition kept prices low and services high. Today, in the world where the duopoly increasingly talks about returning us to the world where innovation is as the network owners says, broadband in the US sucks. We are somewhere between 12th and 19th in the world, depending upon whose scale you use. As the Wall Street Journal reported two months ago, broadband in the US is “slow and expensive.” Verizon’s entry-level broadband is $14.95 for 786 kbs. That about $20 per megabit. In FRANCE, for $36/m, you get 20 megabits/s — or about $1.80 per megabit.

How did France get it so good? By following the rules the US passed in 1996, but that telecoms never really followed (and cable companies didn’t have to follow): “strict unbundling.” That’s the same in Japan — fierce competition induced by “heavy handed” regulation producing a faster, cheaper Internet. Now of course, no one is pushing “open access” anymore. Net neutrality is a thin and light substitute for the strategy that has worked in France and Japan. But it is regulation, no doubt.

So while it is true that we have had both:

(a) common carrier like regulation applied to the Internet, and
(b) basically no effective regulation applied to the Internet

and it is true that we have had both:

(c) fast, fierce competition to provide Internet service and
(d) just about the worst broadband service of the developed world

it is not true that we had (c) when we had (b).

We had (c) when we had (a), and we have (d) now that we have (b).

But in the world where the President has the inherent authority to wiretap telephones, who would be surprised if facts didn’t matter much.

Broadband is infrastructure — like highways, if not railroads. If you rely upon “markets” alone to provide infrastructure, you’ll get less of it, and at a higher price. (See, e.g., the United States, today.)