Stanford Scholar Speaks of Free Culture in 2002 Grafstein Lecture

By Craig McTaggart

Stanford Law School's Prof. Lawrence Lessig offered his theory of “free culture” in the third annual Grafstein Annual Lecture in Communications in January 2002. He expanded on theories described his books, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (1999) and The Future of Ideas(2001), and told four stories of copyright law run amok.

Prof. Lawrence Lessig Lessig despaired that while new technologies are decreasing the costs of creativity, there is a parallel trend of increased intellectual property protection for works. As he wryly noted, “the technological trend means more is possible with less; the legal trend means less is allowed than before.”

He described a techno-legal “arms race” between expression-enabling technology and copyright-controlling legislation. Unfortunately, in this “taffy pull,” copyright law is winning. Lessig urges a return to shorter copyright terms and less protection against derivative works, to ensure a steady supply of “free culture,” an essential input for creativity and innovation.

In Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lessig had explained to a public otherwise entranced by the Internet that despite its supposed “free” nature, the Internet enables near-perfect control over information. Those in a position to exercise this control are in effect the Internet’s content regulators. In The Future of Ideas, Lessig asserted that the titans of the U.S. “copyright industry” are actively manipulating both technical code and legal code (copyright) to extract more control over ideas than copyright law grants them. The elimination of “real-space” constraints on control results in the shrinking of the commons of ideas which creators can use in creating new works (since most creation is incremental).

By emphasizing the original purpose and terms of intellectual property protection under U.S. law, Lessig argued that the drive to propertize has gone out of control, at the urging of Disney and commercial copyright holders, not individual creators. The inability to conceive of resources as being part of a commons, not owned or controlled by anyone in particular, he argued, threatens to starve the processes of expression and innovation of ideas - their most important raw material.

Lessig recently presented this theory to the U.S. Supreme Court in Eldred v. Ashcroft, a constitutional challenge of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (pejoratively known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act), which extended by 20 years both existing copyrights and future copyrights in the U.S.

After delivering the lecture, Lessig spent a week at the Faculty in January 2002 leading an intensive course on “"The Law of Cyberspace.”"