Lawrence Lessig, hero of the digital frontier and leading advocate of free culture everywhere, was featured in this week’s episode of The West Wing. He himself wasn’t on the show, but was played by the mad scientist from Back to the Future (Christopher Lloyd). Lessig teaches Constitutional law at Stanford University and chairs the Creative Commons project. In his blog Lessig explains how he wound up on the show, in his typical humble fashion:
The story is based (loosely) upon a true story. I was involved in the drafting of one early version of the Georgian constitution. But the story ended up in the West Wing because I told the story to my students in Constitutional Law at Harvard, and a current writer for the West Wing was in that class.
And so is “fame” made: My story is on the West Wing because I was at Harvard — not because the brilliance of my intervention had been noted and reviewed, but because I was teaching talented kids who would prove to be important.
[read the full entry]
How do I know that his “humble fashion” is “typical”? I read his amazing book, Free Culture, in which he spends a chapter meticulously dissecting the mistakes he made in the Eldred v. Ashcroft case before the Supreme Court.
The book makes a compelling case for fixing the copyright laws in this country, laws that have crippled culture and stymied innovation. Lessig summarizes one of the many problems with the way that Congress has recently handled copyrights:
Our constitutional system requires limits on copyright as a way to assure that copyright holders do not too heavily influence the development and distribution of our culture. Yet…we have set up a system that assures that copyright terms will be repeatedly extended, and extended, and extended.
Indeed, that is what has happened, especially over the last 40 years or so.
A century ago, copyrights lasted for only 14 years, with an option to extend them for additional 14. Now, copyrights last for roughly 110 years. No registration is necessary, no licensing, no extensions. If you create a work, it is by default copyrighted for that long.
So, if I wanted to use your work, maybe by making a cheesy TV show based on your novel, I would need your permission and would have to pay you a fee to do so. For the next 100 years! You know, it kind of makes sense when we think about protecting Mickey Mouse, but the problem arises from the millions of works that have vanished from public consciousness. We can’t touch those either! We can’t, for example, digitize the reels and reels of film that will soon decay from old age. It will all be irretrievably lost.
Why can’t we just ask permission of the copyright holders, pay them their fee (if they request one), and get on with it? Because it’s almost impossible to know who and where the copyright holders are. Remember, copyrights don’t have to be registered. Couldn’t we just use the old, abandoned work and hope the copyright holder will be gracious if he or she notices? Not unless we want to risk being sued, branded as a “thief,” and fined an enormous sum of money.
Okay, I can see this entry is getting far too long already, so I’ll stop now, even though it’s got me all fired up. Besides, you should be reading the book, not my feeble summary of it.