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the Complete Review
the complete review - law



Free Culture

by
Lawrence Lessig


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Free Culture



Title: Free Culture
Author: Lawrence Lessig
Genre: Law
Written: 2004
Length: 310 pages
Availability: Free Culture - US
Free Culture - UK
Free Culture - Canada
Du bon usage de la piraterie - France
Freie Kultur - Deutschland
  • How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity
  • This book can also be downloaded (for free) here

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good survey and discussion of current situation

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Business Week . 5/4/2004 Heather Green
The Economist . 17/4/2004 .
Forbes . 29/3/2004 Stephen Manes
National Review . 3/5/2004 James V. DeLong
New Scientist . 1/5/2004 Kurt Kleiner
The NY Observer . 22/3/2004 Jonathan A. Knee
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/4/2004 Adam Cohen
Salon . 8/4/2004 Farhad Majoo
Wall Street Journal . 26/3/2004 Stewart Baker
The Washington Post . 23/3/2004 Chris Lehmann


  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, much disagreement, but admit he addresses important issues

  From the Reviews:
  • "Although this book is far from a breezy read, it offers an accessible and compelling case for the need for balance: The power that copyright holders have over their works must not limit the ability of others to produce related new creations. (...) Lessig offers various remedies for this worsening predicament, but as a whole, they are less compelling than his analysis of the problems." - Heather Green, Business Week

  • "Ultimately, Free Culture is about neither law nor technology, the author's areas of expertise. It is about power. Specifically, it concerns the way in which financial and political power are used by corporations to preserve the status quo and to further their own commercial interests. This may be to the detriment of something more socially valuable: a loss of creativity that can never be measured." - The Economist

  • "Lessig's inflammatory new screed, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (...) A more honest title ? Freeloader Culture: A Manifesto for Stealing Intellectual Property.(...) The intellectual property issue of our time is how to balance the rights of creators and consumers. Don't look to Lessig for that balance. (...) Let's make it clear: The artists who would benefit most from Lessig's legal meddling are rip-off artists." - Stephen Manes, Forbes

  • "(H)e argues convincingly, intellectual property laws threaten to strangle the creativity they were intended to protect." - Kurt Kleiner, New Scientist

  • "Free Culture comes in two distinct parts. (...) (T)he longer first part (...) is a highly entertaining but utterly unconvincing argument for a fundamental rethinking of how we regulate creative content in the Internet era. The second part, which seems like an afterthought, is a poignant chronicle of Mr. Lessig’s unsuccessful effort to have the latest legislative extension of copyright protections declared unconstitutional. (...) You’ll have to read closely: His accessible style gives his polemic an air of reasonableness even when it is at its thinnest." - Jonathan A. Knee, The New York Observer

  • "The shrinking of the public domain, and the devastation it threatens to the culture, are the subject of a powerfully argued and important analysis by Lawrence Lessig (.....) Free Culture is partly a final appeal to the court of public opinion and partly a call to arms. It is also surprisingly entertaining. Lessig writes for the interested layman, carefully explaining copyright's often opaque terminology and doctrines." - Adam Cohen, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The first two-thirds of Free Culture make this case quite patiently and effectively -- despite Lessig's occasional weakness for dramatic italics. Unfortunately, Lessig devotes much of the remainder of the book to a blow-by-blow account of Eldred v. Ashcroft (.....) Then again, it's hard to begrudge him a bit of obsessiveness in the wake of the Eldred setback: As the rest of Free Culture makes clear, the arcane ins and outs of today's copyright battles now mask a much deeper cultural struggle in which the stakes have grown unthinkably high." - Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Free Culture Lawrence Lessig argues that current technology -- specifically the rise of the Internet and the attendant peer-to-peer (p2p) file sharing possibilities -- has made for new conditions that have been both inadequately and incorrectly addressed by law-makers. As he shows, contemporary copyright protection has come to be much more far-reaching than ever before, and he expresses great concern about the stifling and chilling effect this has on cultural production and creativity (in their broadest possible definitions).
       Free Culture offers a good overview of the changing nature of copyright, and the legislative responses to technological advances. New technologies have often threatened (or appeared to threaten) content creators and providers, but previously regulation (and judicial interpretation thereof) has generally managed to balance the rights of copyright holders with the socially desirable making available of such property (readily, if possibly cheaply, and eventually freely). As Lessig reminds the readers, the American Founding Fathers saw intellectual property differently than other types of property, specifically insisting in the Constitution that copyrights (like patents) can only be secured "for limited Times" (but, as he also points out, after he lost Eldred v. Ashcroft in front of the Supreme Court, it appears that Congress has now been given carte blanche to extend copyright-protection for an essentially unlimited term).
       Earlier technologies that allowed the easy reproduction of copyright-protected material were also challenged, and it's fun to read such hysterical rantings as that of the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti, when the VCR was introduced:

One does not have to be trained in sophisticated marketing and creative judgment to understand the devastation on the after-theater marketplace caused by the hundreds of millions of tapings that will adversely impact on the future of the creative community in this country. It is simply a question of basic economics and plain common sense.
       Previously the powers-that-be have had only limited success in exerting total control over their copyrighted material, but, as Lessig points out, current technology allows far more complete control. And the law (generally new law, written by lawmakers whose pockets are lined by the few who benefit tremendously from strict restrictions) has come down hard in favour of such complete control.
       Lessig argues that it is not a question of no protection (i.e. anybody can take anything over the Internet and do what they want with it) versus complete protection (the copyright holder is allowed to decide any and all use of the protected material), but notes that the debate is often framed like that. In fact, the complete control copyright-holders (or at least the big corporate players) now claim (and are close to getting) is a radical shift from how intellectual property has been treated previously. Lessig believes there is a middle ground that could be found.
       The most significant aspect of the book is in pointing out the consequences of the current copyright-protection regime. New regulations often impose absurdly high penalties: Lessig notes that stealing a CD from a store carries (in California) a maximum fine of $ 1,000.00 -- but downloading a ten-track CD makes you liable for $ 1,500,000.00 of damages. The costs aren't only high for patently illegal uses -- and that's what Lessig sees as the biggest problem: even legitimate or fair use is stifled. The "permission culture" that has arisen imposes a huge burden on society -- especially since copyright, in its current form, is so hard to track down. The bulk of all material still protected by copyright is out of print and out of sight -- and because of the difficulty in determining who owns what (copyright holders do not need to register in order to protect their intellectual property), there's little incentive to utilize it in any form, or make it available.
       Coupled with the consolidation of big media (content outlets, apart from on the Internet (for now), are largely concentrated in the hands of a few major corporations) creativity is becoming ever-more restricted -- or, more precisely, it is becoming ever-more difficult to take advantage of the new technologies to engage in new creative activity. The new technologies afford incredible opportunities, but many of these can't be explored or considered because of current legal restrictions. Lessig makes a good case for this being a bad thing for society as a whole (and completely at odds with previous American attitudes towards the use of new technologies).
       Lessig offers several sensible solutions in working towards improving the situation -- understanding that new technologies bring constant change with them, and that tomorrow's problems will likely be very different from today's. Particularly sensible is the call for shorter copyright terms, a registration requirement, and the possibility of renewing copyrights. (As he notes, when copyrights used to be renewable only a small percentage of copyright-holders took advantage of this possibility, allowing the bulk of protected material to be freed and enter the public domain.)
       Lessig also discusses his failure in Eldred v. Ashcroft, an interesting side-story. The catastrophic consequences of this decision (which upheld the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (which extended copyright terms even for existing work)) are a major part of the problem of the current situation. The question is whether enough citizens can get outraged enough to see to it that there are legislative responses that impose a more sensible intellectual property protection regime. The protests against the FCC when it wanted to relax media ownership rules are a heartening sign that enough people are aware of the significance of these issues; nevertheless, the well-funded copyright-holders that lobby legislators are hard to counter.
       The cost to society of the rigid copyright-protection laws now in force is large, as Lessig convincingly demonstrates. There are alternatives, and they do not necessarily impose a large cost on copyright holders -- and certainly one that is far outweighed by the benefits accruing to society as a whole. If this book gets people thinking about this Lessig has already performed a valuable service.
       Lessig presents his material fairly well: the issues are clearly presented, the writing straightforward (Lessig is a law professor, but this is written strictly for a lay audience), and he looks at most sides of the arguments. Not all the questions that this complex issue raises are addressed, but many are, and they are handled -- at least in a general introductory sort of way -- well. This is an incredibly important subject, with far-reaching consequences, and for those who haven't worried about it previously this book should serve as an effective wake-up call.

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Links:

Free Culture: Reviews: Eldred, etc.: Lawrence Lessig: Other books by Lawrence Lessig under review: Other books of Interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Lawrence Lessig teaches at Stanford Law School.

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© 2004-2009 the complete review

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