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Published: November 24, 2009
 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57

 
 

Best Business Books 2009: Technology

The speed of MySpace’s relative decline has apparently blindsided even the gimlet-eyed Angwin. In her epilogue, she writes, “MySpace remains the dominant social networking website.… Facebook is just half the size.” But those were last year’s numbers. In May 2009, MySpace’s problems became sufficiently dire for Murdoch to fire DeWolfe and shuffle Anderson off to a quiet office. The new CEO is Owen Van Natta, formerly an executive at Facebook.

There is a bigger picture behind the phenomenon that drew millions to MySpace: the shift that suddenly opened a new channel of communication, part personal and part broadcasting. Because it is as easy for friends to share copyrighted digital files as it is to tweet their activities, the Net is also a disruptive (to say the least) distribution system. Cheap, or free, software tools allow people to add their own creative spin to existing books, movies, and songs — though the activity is currently illegal. But when a technological reset dramatically alters the landscape, shouldn’t legal boundaries be altered as well? And if so, which ones? And how?

These are complicated questions, and no one has deconstructed them more vividly than law professor Lawrence Lessig. (See “Lawrence Lessig: The Thought Leader Interview,” by Lawrence M. Fisher, s+b, Second Quarter 2002.) Over the past decade, Lessig has been writing what may now be seen as a multivolume work on how the Web interacts — and often clashes — with the law. (His pioneering role in the field has earned him the sobriquet “the Elvis of cyberlaw.”) Taken as a whole, Lessig’s body of work is sort of a digital War and Peace, a mix of gleeful optimism at the new creative opportunities the technology provides and grim hand-wringing at how entrenched forces can stifle those prospects with restrictive regulations and software. The latest tome is Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy.

Make no mistake, Lessig is an advocate. He tilts his lance at the entrenched forces that have fortified and extended the laws of copyright. The Recording Industry Association of America probably considers him a bigger threat than peer-to-peer file-sharing programs like LimeWire. Lessig has even abandoned his armchair to found an organization, Creative Commons, that allows artists to register their work in a way that circumvents the restrictive default copyright status, allowing more freedom to those who would share the works or include portions of them in their own creations. But he also bristles at attempts to make him into a radical who wants to eliminate copyright entirely.

In Remix, Lessig draws a sweeping picture of the rise, fall, and budding revival of participatory culture. He starts with the 19th century; before radio and phonographs, people actually made their own music! (John Philip Sousa, Lessig tells us, argued for copyright protection, but also worried that the advent of “infernal machines” would mean the end of the amateur music maker.) Lessig describes that participatory process as “read write” (RW) culture. During the 20th century, however, popular media such as radio, vinyl recording disks, and movies generated an overwhelming bias toward “read only” (RO) culture, where highly commercialized information, art, and entertainment was delivered to passive listeners and viewers who had little ability — and less inclination — to create their own work.

In the 21st century, the era of digital files and the Internet, it’s much easier for amateurs to tweak existing works, mix them into new creations, or hatch new work. And for the first time, instant global distribution is accessible to all. (With a $200 Flip video camera and YouTube, millions have the power that only a few decades ago was reserved for a very few broadcasters.) As you would expect, we’re seeing a triumphant return to RW culture, and Lessig trots out a number of examples, including a Pittsburgh medical technician who mines hundreds of songs to create avant-garde remixes (called mash-ups) and communities making Star Wars sequels with Lego blocks.

 
 
 
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