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Sunday, October 26, 2008


Can I Remix Lessig's 'Remix'?

Book Review: Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Lawrence Lessig (2008, The Penguin Press, USA).

While we all know the old adage to not judge a book by its cover, the cover of Remix is probably the best of Lessig's tomes to date, an attractive blending of pink and blue circles to create purple. So when I sat down on Thursday night with my white dust-jacketed hard-cover copy and opened up to the Tiffany-blue inside cover, I was a little surprised by what I read. The first line of the dust-jacket blurb states that "The author of Free Culture shows how we harm our children...". Snippets of The Simpson character Helen Lovejoy's recurring shriek came to mind, "Won't somebody please think of the children!" Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but I admit I was a little perturbed by Lessig's framing his argument in such a way.

Still, I soldiered on with Remix and, overall, I was impressed by Lessig's latest contribution. Lessig frames his text in terms of the development of 'Read Only' culture, which dominated the 20th century and 'Read/Write' culture, which we are experiencing the beginnings of now, particularly with regard to user-generated content. As with his previous texts, Lessig draws on a number of examples to illustrate why we need to create a 'hybrid' economy that draws upon both the commercial and sharing economies. For the most part, Lessig is quite persuasive in his argument and, as always, writes in a non-legalistic way that many can understand.

Yet there are a few things that to me lessened the impact of the book. My criticisms of Remix are basically two-fold, and these won't bother everyone. The first is - and you can criticise me for stating this - the essentially all-American focus. Lessig talks about how we are damaging 'our children', when clearly this is really 'our children in the western world with access to a computer'. This may seem an unfair criticism; not every book needs to address the disparity between developed and developing countries and Internet access, but Lessig does not even acknowledge this point. This is a particular shame given that Creative Commons licences are now being ported to many different jurisdictions and it would have been a good opportunity to show how the concept of 'remix' works in these jurisdictions. Perhaps Lessig might address this in the future.

The All-American focus also bothered me with regard to Lessig's recommendations for legal reform. Again, Lessig pioneers the, 'let's make copyright an opt-in system and reduce the length of protection' position. Let me say this once and for all, to all those Americans out there who have made the same or similar points: THE BERNE CONVENTION EXISTS. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do the keyboard equivalent of yelling. But I imagine my future thesis examiners will not be impressed if I make a number of suggestions for reform that completely ignore the reality of Australia's international obligations. The Berne Convention dictates a certain period of protection for works and other subject matter and, in fact, the United States has extended its protection beyond that minimum (and indeed made Australia do the same). Suggestions for reform that ignore these obligations are essentially useless. We need to start thinking about reforms that work within the current system and, admittedly, Lessig does so, for example, by suggesting a simplification of current copyright law. But choosing to ignore the reality of international obligations lessens the impact of those other suggestions, unless Lessig is willing to address this issue at an international level.

My second point is that I think Lessig needs to reconsider who his target audience is. Lessig writes about the impact of blogs; he writes about Wikipedia; he writes about YouTube, Amazon, Google, Flickr. The trouble is the people who will read Remix and ordered his book as quickly as I did, will be individuals who blog; have edited Wikipedia; shopped on; and use Google, YouTube, and Flickr. They may have some legal knowledge (at the very least a brush with copyright law). They will probably also be American, actually.

Thus the majority of Lessig's readers, particularly those who buy the first run of Remix, probably know as much about his modern examples as he does. In fact, Lessig himself has encouraged this, by creating wikis for his books that his readers can directly contribute to. So there is no reason any more to re-write the details of Wikipedia's birth. Benkler has done it. Zittrain has done it. Lessig has done it. Even I have done it. Let there be no more, please.

This may seem a harsh criticism, and certainly there will be people who read Remix and this is their first brush with such a brave new world. But if you are reading this review, then you probably know a reasonable amount about this area anyway, and can probably see where I am coming from.

Despite these criticisms, as I said before overall I did enjoy Remix...and, in the spirit of the hybrid economy that Lessig writes about, I look forward to contributing to the Remix wiki, and not receiving any payment for that.

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