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 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2009: Technology

Unfortunately, says Lessig, our current laws regard the creation of such works as a criminal act. The situation is not only repressive, it’s ludicrous, according to Lessig, who argues, “We can’t make our kids passive in the way we were toward the culture around us. We can only make them ‘pirates.’” Even when the law doesn’t prohibit remixing (such as under fair use provisions), some copyright holders have installed digital locks on their works to deny even legal reuse of the material.

Having established these points in the first half of Remix, Lessig tries something more ambitious in the second part of the book: laying the groundwork for an entirely new copyright system through which artists and businesses might make money in an era of thriving, and legal, RW culture. Although not necessarily convincing, his arguments are fascinating.

Lessig delineates two current economies on the Internet: a traditional commercial one in which the dominant form of exchange is money, and a “sharing economy,” in which labor and goods are traded for love, altruism, patriotism, the fun of participation...anything, it seems, but money. Amazon belongs to the first economy, and Wikipedia is a prime example of the second. Lessig envisions the emergence of “an increasingly important third economy: one that builds upon both the sharing and commercial economies, one that adds value to each. This third type — the hybrid — will dominate the architecture for commerce on the Web…. The hybrid is either a commercial entity that aims to leverage value from a sharing economy, or it is a sharing economy that builds a commercial entity to better support its sharing aims. Either way, the hybrid links two simpler, or purer, economies, and produces something from the link.”

In other words, the Third Way is definitely for-profit but not rapaciously so, and such businesses are synced to the sharing spirit of the Web. It sounds terrific, but the examples Lessig gives aren’t exactly overwhelming. There’s Red Hat, the company promoting the open source Linux (struggling in recent years). He also cites Flickr, a photo-sharing site (now owned by Yahoo) that takes in revenues from premium memberships. He talks about Craigslist, a service that was firmly planted in the sharing economy but is still struggling to figure out how far it wants to venture into the commercial realm. (Oddly, Lessig doesn’t dwell on the examples of social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace, which appear to fit his hybrid prototype, with their for-profit exploitation of user content.)

Lessig returns to firmer ground in his conclusions, where once again he urges a rethinking of copyright laws. His closing argument, while spirited, has an elegiac tone. After four books attacking copyright laws, Lessig is on to his next crusade — fighting the influence of campaign money on legislators. Throughout the copyright controversy, Lessig’s arguments have ultimately rested on common sense and logic. As far as legislators are concerned, both of these are almost always trumped by special interest money. Case in point: a copyright regimen that has criminalized an entire generation.

One of the most prominent examples of 21st-century RW culture owes less to remixing than to simple expression. That would be blogging. This doesn’t surprise Scott Rosenberg, a former newspaper writer turned online journalist and blogger. “Communication,” he writes in Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters, “was not some bell or whistle. It was the whole point of the Web, the defining trait of the new medium — like motion in movies, or sound in radio, or narrow columns of text in newspapers.” (Emphasis author’s.) But although blogging in one sense seems a fairly predictable outgrowth of a medium that allows instant publication to a global audience, the path toward ubiquity is more colorful than one might expect. And despite all the attention paid to blogging, in Rosenberg’s hands, the implications turn out to be more profound than most people, even bloggers, have recognized to date.

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