Writing Not Allowed? Lessig's Address at CCCC

UPDATE: Janine has audio of Lessig's talk!

Everyone's been raving about Lawrence Lessig's featured address, and I'd like to chime in and do the same. When the IP committee announced that they were able to get him to come and speak, I was thrilled; one of my serious convictions about IP scholarship in the field of rhetoric and composition is that we need to do a better job communicating with other R&C scholars about how the current copyright system affects them, and how alternatives to the default copyright would benefit them. We haven't adequately explained what the stakes are. I wish someone who has more expertise in this area than I do would make a good, clear bulleted list that contains specific things composition instructors get to do now, no problem, that an unfavorable decision in the Grokster case or some proposed change in legislation would change. Something like, "If the Grokster case is decided in favor of MGM, this affects you because the decision's precedent will make it so that you are no longer allowed to..." Or, maybe a list of possibilities: "If the Digital Millenium Copyright Act had not passed, you (as a composition instructor) would be able to..." "If the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act had not passed, you would be able to..."

Then come up with some really, really innovative, engaging ideas that would bring the whole thing home for this field, you know? Make everybody mad. Show everyone what this copyright quagmire actually means for democracy and knowledge. We have not done this well at all, but I assumed Lessig would. I was expecting him to do his Free Culture book talk (see notes on one of his 2002 talks), which I saw at the Internet Law Program last year and thought was excellent, but he exceeded my expectations by doing a presentation that was customized for us.

Everything we know as culture, knowledge, and politics is essentially a remix, Lessig began. Everyone does it: companies, politicians, teachers, students, everyone. It's how we construct life; we take something and criticize it, praise it, put a new spin on it, etc. Writing, in a fundamental sense, is remix. It's the core of our educational philosophy, and when we were growing up, it was free. Writing, Lessig emphasized, was allowed. Lessig then did a review of the various uses of texts (free use, fair use), using books and traditional pen-and-paper writing as the example. But now we have new technologies that allow all kinds of stuff, especially copying. Every single use of digital material results in a copy (even viewing web sites, as copies of the files are downloaded and cached). We can copy and distribute our remixes. Throughout history, we've tried to strike a balance between protection of creators' rights and readers' rights, but what happens when the technology of remix changes? Do the freedoms change as well? Lessig asked.

For students who are in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college today, will writing be allowed? No. Permission is required to remix. Lessig mentioned a film (don't remember the name), produced on a something like $240 budget, that got raves at Cannes, but the rights to use the music in the film were $400,000. Outrageous...

Lessig claimed: Remixes, like Bush/Blair doing "Endless Love" and the famous Terrorist Terrorist Terrorist video are writing. We can't teach these forms of writing because of the potential (probable) copyright infringement. The content (movie, music) industries call it piracy and wage a war on the copyright "terrorists," and the content industries want to fight the terrorists with weapons of technology. When architecture is created to guarantee protection, Lessig claimed, it will destroy remix culture. We need to reform the laws to make the laws more suited to technological change; the existing copyright law is cumbersome, expensive, and inefficient.

Lessig then suggested three responses: First, we can speak clearly about piracy. Second, we can work to restore effective separation between creative work that needs copyright and work that doesn't need the same kind. A different model makes sense for scholarship. THANK YOU, PROFESSOR LESSIG! Finally, we can embrace private reform, which is the objective of Creative Commons. Authors can mark their own content. Lessig reviewed the rationale behind Creative Commons licenses and explained how they work, with understandable (human-readable), unchallengeable (lawyer-readable), and usable (machine-readable metadata) layers. He plugged Science Commons and called for open access publishing.

He then mentioned some relevant commentary by law and ethics professor Charles Nesson, who articulates the costs of prohibition culture. This generation has been raised with rules that have no real relevance to their lives. If they internalize the corrosive "piracy" and "copyright terrorist" idea and see themselves as pirates and terrorists, it produces extremism on both ends: pirate-y anarchy and Big Business.

Lessig ended by connecting all this to literacy: Defend the freedom to write. Know the different categories of use: Regulated use, fair use, and free use. The total protection, regulated use, all rights reserved model shouldn't be the default, as it now is (everything that you put in a fixed medium is automatically copyrighted, in case you didn't know). He said he was skeptical of the "beef up fair use" strategy (again, a big THANK YOU; I am just not seeing the reformative potential there either)

I hope everyone who attended went out and told one or two colleagues about the talk. It was much needed, and I hope it created new awareness and will have some positive results among rhetoric and composition scholars.