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Lawrence Lessig: Re-examining the remix

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Former "young Republican" Larry Lessig talks about what Democrats can learn about copyright from their opposite party, considered more conservative. A surprising lens on remix culture.

- Legal activist
Lawrence Lessig has already transformed intellectual-property law with his Creative Commons innovation. Now he's focused on an even bigger problem: The US' broken political system. Full bio

I want to talk about
00:16
what we learn from conservatives.
00:18
And I'm at a stage in life where I'm yearning for my old days,
00:21
so I want to confess to you
00:24
that when I was a kid,
00:26
indeed, I was a conservative.
00:30
I was a Young Republican, a Teenage Republican,
00:33
a leader in the Teenage Republicans.
00:35
Indeed, I was the youngest member
00:37
of any delegation
00:39
in the 1980 convention that elected Ronald Reagan
00:41
to be the Republican nominee for president.
00:43
Now, I know what you're thinking.
00:47
(Laughter)
00:49
You're thinking, "That's not what the Internets say."
00:51
You're thinking, "Wikipedia doesn't say this fact."
00:55
And indeed, this is just one of the examples
00:58
of the junk that flows across the tubes
01:01
in these Internets here.
01:03
Wikipedia reports that this guy,
01:06
this former congressman from Erie, Pennsylvania
01:08
was, at the age of 20, one of the youngest people
01:11
at the Republican National Convention,
01:13
but it's just not true.
01:15
(Laughter)
01:18
Indeed, it drives me so nuts, let me just change this little fact here.
01:20
(Laughter)
01:23
(Applause)
01:26
All right. Okay, so ... perfect.
01:30
Perfect.
01:33
(Laughter)
01:35
Okay, speaker Lawrence Lessig, right.
01:39
Okay.
01:42
Finally, truth will be brought here.
01:44
Okay, see? It's done. It's almost done. Here we go.
01:46
"... Youngest Republican," okay, we're finished.
01:49
That's it. Please save this.
01:53
Great, here we go.
01:56
And ... Wikipedia is fixed, finally.
01:59
Okay, but no, this is really besides the point.
02:02
(Applause)
02:05
But the thing I want you to think about when we think about conservatives --
02:09
not so much this issue of the 1980 convention --
02:12
the thing to think about is this:
02:14
They go to church.
02:16
Now, you know, I mean, a lot of people go to church.
02:18
I'm not talking about that only conservatives go to church.
02:20
And I'm not talking about the God thing.
02:23
I don't want to get into that, you know; that's not my point.
02:25
They go to church, by which I mean,
02:27
they do lots of things for free for each other.
02:29
They hold potluck dinners.
02:33
Indeed, they sell books about potluck dinners.
02:35
They serve food to poor people.
02:38
They share, they give,
02:41
they give away for free.
02:43
And it's the very same people
02:45
leading Wall Street firms
02:49
who, on Sundays, show up
02:52
and share.
02:55
And not only food, right.
02:57
These very same people
02:59
are strong believers, in lots of contexts,
03:01
in the limits on the markets.
03:04
They are in many important places
03:07
against markets.
03:10
Indeed, they, like all of us, celebrate this kind of relationship.
03:12
But they're very keen that we don't
03:15
let money drop into that relationship,
03:17
else it turns into something like this.
03:19
They want to regulate us, those conservatives,
03:22
to stop us from allowing the market to spread in those places.
03:25
Because they understand:
03:28
There are places for the market
03:31
and places where the market should not exist,
03:33
where we should be free
03:36
to enjoy the fellowship of others.
03:39
They recognize: Both of these things have to live together.
03:42
And the second great thing about conservatives:
03:46
they get ecology.
03:49
Right, it was the first great Republican president of the 20th century
03:51
who taught us about
03:54
environmental thinking -- Teddy Roosevelt.
03:56
They first taught us about ecology
03:58
in the context of natural resources.
04:00
And then they began to teach us in the context of
04:03
innovation, economics.
04:05
They understand, in that context,
04:07
"free." They understand "free" is an important
04:09
essential part of the
04:12
cultural ecology as well.
04:14
That's the thing I want you to think about them.
04:16
Now, I know
04:21
you don't believe me, really, here.
04:23
So here's exhibit number one.
04:28
I want to share with you my latest hero, Julian Sanchez,
04:30
a libertarian who works at the, for many people,
04:33
"evil" Cato Institute.
04:36
Okay, so Julian made this video.
04:39
He's a terrible producer of videos,
04:41
but it's great content, so I'm going to give you a little bit of it.
04:43
So here he is beginning.
04:45
Julian Sanchez: I'm going to make an observation about the way
04:47
remix culture seems to be evolving ...
04:49
Larry Lessig: So what he does is he begins to tell us
04:51
about these three videos.
04:53
This is this fantastic Brat Pack remix
04:56
set to Lisztomania.
04:59
Which, of course, spread virally.
05:03
Hugely successful.
05:05
(Music)
05:07
And then some people from Brooklyn saw it.
05:11
They decided they wanted to do the same.
05:13
(Music)
05:20
And then, of course, people from San Fransisco saw it.
05:37
And San Franciscans thought they had to do the same as well.
05:39
(Music)
05:42
And so they're beautiful, but this libertarian
06:03
has some important lessons he wants us to learn from this.
06:06
Here's lesson number one.
06:08
JS: There's obviously also something really deeply great about this.
06:11
They are acting in the sense that they're
06:15
emulating the original mashup.
06:18
And the guy who shot it obviously has a strong eye
06:20
and some experience with video editing.
06:23
But this is also basically just a group of friends
06:25
having an authentic social moment
06:28
and screwing around together.
06:30
It should feel familiar and kind of resonate
06:32
for anyone who's had a sing-a-long or a dance party
06:34
with a group of good friends.
06:36
LL: Or ...
06:38
JS: So that's importantly different from the earlier videos we looked at
06:40
because here, remix isn't just about
06:43
an individual doing something alone in his basement;
06:45
it becomes an act of social creativity.
06:48
And it's not just that it yields
06:51
a different kind of product at the end,
06:53
it's that potentially it changes the way that we relate to each other.
06:56
All of our normal social interactions
07:00
become a kind of invitation
07:03
to this sort of collective expression.
07:05
It's our real social lives themselves
07:07
that are transmuted into art.
07:09
LL: And so then, what this libertarian draws from these two points ...
07:12
JS: One remix is about
07:15
individuals using our shared culture
07:17
as a kind of language to communicate something to an audience.
07:19
Stage two, social remix,
07:22
is really about using it to mediate
07:24
people's relationships to each other.
07:26
First, within each video,
07:29
the Brat Pack characters are used as a kind of template
07:31
for performing the social reality of each group.
07:34
But there's also a dialogue between the videos,
07:37
where, once the basic structure is established,
07:40
it becomes a kind of platform
07:43
for articulating the similarities and differences
07:45
between the groups' social and physical worlds.
07:48
LL: And then, here's for me,
07:51
the critical key to what
07:53
Julian has to say ...
07:55
JS: Copyright policy isn't just about
07:57
how to incentivize the production
07:59
of a certain kind of artistic commodity;
08:01
it's about what level of control
08:03
we're going to permit to be exercised
08:05
over our social realities --
08:07
social realities that are now inevitably
08:09
permeated by pop culture.
08:12
I think it's important that we
08:14
keep these two different kinds of public goods in mind.
08:16
If we're only focused on how to maximize
08:19
the supply of one,
08:22
I think we risk suppressing
08:24
this different and richer
08:26
and, in some ways, maybe even more important one.
08:28
LL: Right. Bingo. Point.
08:31
Freedom needs this opportunity
08:34
to both have the commercial success
08:37
of the great commercial works
08:40
and the opportunity
08:42
to build this different kind of culture.
08:44
And for that to happen, you need
08:46
ideas like fair use to be central and protected,
08:48
to enable this kind of innovation,
08:51
as this libertarian tells us,
08:54
between these two creative cultures,
08:56
a commercial and a sharing culture.
08:59
The point is they, he, here,
09:02
gets that culture.
09:04
Now, my concern is, we Dems,
09:06
too often, not so much.
09:09
All right, take for example this great company.
09:12
In the good old days when this Republican ran that company,
09:16
their greatest work was work that built on the past, right.
09:19
All of the great Disney works
09:22
were works that took works that
09:25
were in the public domain and remixed them,
09:27
or waited until they entered the public domain to remix them,
09:29
to celebrate this add-on remix creativity.
09:32
Indeed, Mickey Mouse himself, of course,
09:35
as "Steamboat Willie,"
09:38
is a remix of the then, very dominant,
09:40
very popular "Steamboat Bill"
09:43
by Buster Keaton.
09:45
This man was a remixer extraordinaire.
09:47
He is the celebration and ideal
09:50
of exactly this kind of creativity.
09:52
But then the company passes
09:55
through this dark stage
09:57
to this Democrat.
10:00
Wildly different.
10:02
This is the mastermind behind
10:04
the eventual passage of what we call
10:06
the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act,
10:08
extending the term of existing copyrights
10:11
by 20 years,
10:13
so that no one could do to Disney
10:15
what Disney did to the Brothers Grimm.
10:17
Now, when we tried to challenge this,
10:20
going to the Supreme Court, getting the Supreme Court, the bunch of conservatives there --
10:22
if we could get them to wake up to this -- to strike it down,
10:25
we had the assistance of Nobel Prize winners
10:28
including this right-wing
10:31
Nobel Prize winner, Milton Friedman,
10:34
who said he would join our brief
10:36
only if the word "no brainer"
10:38
was in the brief somewhere.
10:40
(Laughter)
10:42
But apparently, no brains
10:44
existed in this place
10:46
when Democrats passed and signed
10:48
this bill into law.
10:50
Now, tiny little quibble of a footnote:
10:52
Sonny Bono, you might say, was a Republican,
10:54
but I don't buy it.
10:57
This guy is no Republican.
10:59
Okay, for a second example,
11:02
think about this cultural hero,
11:04
icon on the Left,
11:06
creator of this character.
11:09
Look at the site that he built: "Star Wars" MashUps,
11:11
inviting people to come and use their creative energy
11:13
to produce a new generation of attention
11:16
towards this extraordinarily important cultural icon.
11:18
Read the license.
11:21
The license for these remixers
11:23
assigns all of the rights
11:25
to the remix back to Lucas.
11:27
The mashup is owned by Lucas.
11:29
Indeed, anything you add to the mashup,
11:32
music you might add,
11:34
Lucas has a worldwide perpetual right
11:36
to exploit that for free.
11:38
There is no creator here to be recognized.
11:40
The creator doesn't have any rights.
11:43
The creator is a sharecropper in this story.
11:45
And we should remember
11:48
who employed the sharecroppers:
11:50
the Democrats, right?
11:52
So the point is the Republicans here
11:54
recognize that there's a certain need
11:57
of ownership,
11:59
a respect for ownership,
12:01
the respect we should give the creator,
12:03
the remixer, the owner, the property owner,
12:05
the copyright owner
12:08
of this extraordinarily powerful stuff,
12:10
and not a generation of sharecroppers.
12:13
Now, I think there are lessons we should learn here,
12:19
lessons about openness.
12:22
Our lives are sharing activities,
12:24
at least in part.
12:27
Even for the head of Goldman Sachs,
12:29
at least in part.
12:31
And for that sharing activity to happen, we have to have
12:34
well-protected spaces of fair use.
12:36
That's number one. Number two:
12:39
This ecology of sharing
12:41
needs freedom
12:43
within which to create.
12:45
Freedom, which means without permission from anyone,
12:48
the ability to create.
12:51
And number three: We need to
12:53
respect the creator,
12:55
the creator of these remixes
12:57
through rights that are
12:59
directly tied to them.
13:01
Now, this explains the right-wing nonprofit
13:05
Creative Commons.
13:08
Actually, it's not a right-wing nonprofit,
13:10
but of course -- let me just tie it here --
13:12
the Creative Commons, which is
13:14
offering authors this simple way to mark their content
13:16
with the freedoms
13:19
they intended to carry.
13:21
So that we go from a "all rights reserved" world
13:23
to a "some rights reserved" world
13:25
so that people can know the freedoms they have attached to the content,
13:28
building and creating
13:31
on the basis of this
13:33
creative copyrighted work.
13:35
These tools that we built
13:37
enable this sharing in parts
13:39
through licenses that make it clear
13:42
and a freedom to create
13:44
without requiring permission first
13:46
because the permission has already been granted
13:48
and a respect for the creator because it builds upon
13:50
a copyright the creator
13:53
has licensed freely.
13:55
And it explains the vast right-wing conspiracy
13:57
that's obviously developed around these licenses,
14:00
as now more than 350 million digital objects
14:03
are out there, licensed freely
14:06
in this way.
14:08
Now that picture of an ecology of creativity,
14:10
the picture of an ecology
14:13
of balanced creativity,
14:15
is that the ecology of creativity we have right now?
14:17
Well, as you all know,
14:20
not many of us believe we do.
14:23
I tripped on the reality of this ecology of creativity
14:25
just last week.
14:28
I created a video which was based
14:30
on a Wireside Chat that I'd given,
14:32
and I uploaded it to YouTube.
14:34
I then got this email from YouTube
14:37
weirdly notifying me
14:39
that there was content in that
14:41
owned by the mysterious WMG
14:43
that matched their content ID.
14:46
So I didn't think much about it.
14:48
And then on Twitter, somebody said to me,
14:50
"Your talk on YouTube was DMCA'd. Was that your purpose?"
14:52
imagining that I had this deep conspiracy
14:55
to reveal the obvious flaws in the DMCA.
14:57
I answered, "No." I didn't even think about it.
15:00
But then I went to the site
15:02
and all of the audio in my site had been silenced.
15:05
My whole 45-minute video
15:09
had been silenced
15:11
because there were snippets in that video,
15:13
a video about fair use,
15:15
that included Warner Music Group music.
15:18
Now, interestingly,
15:21
they still sold ads for that music,
15:23
if you played the silent video.
15:25
You could still buy the music,
15:27
but you couldn't hear anything
15:29
because it had been silenced.
15:31
So I did what the current regime
15:33
says I must do
15:35
to be free to use
15:37
YouTube to talk about fair use.
15:39
I went to this site, and I had to answer these questions.
15:42
And then in an extraordinarily
15:45
Bart Simpson-like, juvenile way
15:47
you've actually got to type out these words
15:50
and get them right
15:53
to reassert your freedom to speak.
15:55
And I felt like I was in third grade again.
15:57
"I will not put tacks on the teacher's chair.
16:00
I will not put tacks on the teacher's chair."
16:03
This is absurd.
16:07
It is outrageous.
16:09
It is an extraordinary perversion of the system of freedom
16:11
we should be encouraging.
16:13
And the question I ask you is: Who's fighting it?
16:15
Well, interestingly, in the last presidential election,
16:17
who was the number one, active
16:20
opponent of this system of regulation
16:22
in online speech?
16:25
John McCain.
16:27
Letter after letter attacking YouTube's refusal
16:29
to be more respectful of fair use
16:32
with their extraordinary notice and take down system,
16:35
that led his campaign so many times
16:37
to be thrown off the Internet.
16:39
Now, that was the story of me then,
16:42
my good old days of right-wing lunacy.
16:45
Let me come back to now,
16:48
now when I'm a little leftist --
16:50
I'm certainly left-handed, so at least a lefty --
16:52
And I wonder, can we on the Left
16:55
expect to build this
16:58
ecology of freedom, now,
17:01
in a world where
17:03
we know the extraordinarily powerful
17:06
influences against it,
17:08
where even icons of the Left like this
17:10
entertain and push bills
17:13
that would effectively ban the requirement
17:16
of open access for government-funded research?
17:19
The president, who has supported
17:23
a process that secretly negotiates agreements,
17:26
which effectively lock us into the insane system
17:29
of DMCA
17:32
that we have adopted
17:34
and likely lock us down a path of three strikes, you're out
17:36
that, of course, the rest of the world are increasingly adopting.
17:39
Not a single example of reform
17:42
has been produced yet.
17:45
And we're not going to see this change
17:49
in this system
17:51
anytime soon.
17:53
So here's the lessons of openness
17:55
that I think we need to learn.
17:58
Openness is a commitment
18:01
to a certain set of values.
18:03
We need to speak of those values.
18:05
The value of freedom. It's a value of community.
18:07
It's a value of the limits in regulation.
18:10
It's a value respecting the creator.
18:12
Now, if we can learn those values
18:16
from at least some influences on the Right,
18:18
if we can take them and incorporate them,
18:20
maybe we could do a little trade.
18:22
We learn those values on the Left,
18:24
and maybe they'll do health care
18:27
or global warming legislation or something in the Right.
18:29
Anyway, please join me
18:31
in teaching these values.
18:33
Thank you very much.
18:35
(Applause)
18:37

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About the speaker:

Lawrence Lessig - Legal activist
Lawrence Lessig has already transformed intellectual-property law with his Creative Commons innovation. Now he's focused on an even bigger problem: The US' broken political system.

Why you should listen

Lawyer and activist Lawrence Lessig spent a decade arguing for sensible intellectual property law, updated for the digital age. He was a founding board member of Creative Commons, an organization that builds better copyright practices through principles established first by the open-source software community.

In 2007, just after his last TED Talk, Lessig announced he was leaving the field of IP and Internet policy, and moving on to a more fundamental problem that blocks all types of sensible policy -- the corrupting influence of money in American politics.

In 2011, Lessig founded Rootstrikers, an organization dedicated to changing the influence of money in Congress. In his latest book, Republic, Lost, he shows just how far the U.S. has spun off course -- and how citizens can regain control. As The New York Times wrote about him, “Mr. Lessig’s vision is at once profoundly pessimistic -- the integrity of the nation is collapsing under the best of intentions --and deeply optimistic. Simple legislative surgery, he says, can put the nation back on the path to greatness.”

Read an excerpt of Lessig's new book, Lesterland >>

More profile about the speaker
Lawrence Lessig | Speaker | TED.com