Lawrence Lessig on the new rules of innovation

Remix cover
Yesterday we discussed Lawrence Lessig’s work. For some of you, that short summary will be enough. But for those who want to learn more about Lessig’s provocative work, today we discuss his work with him, focusing on his new book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy.

MIT: What can we learn about the current and upcoming copyright and innovation wars from how they’ve gone in the past?

Lessig: What we learn is there’s a lot of crying and screaming at any moment of significant technical change. Those who are flourishing and prospering from the current technology are the loudest screamers. But the market quickly figures out how to profit in the context of the new technology, and pretty soon into the battle, the competitive system drives people to focus on how to make money rather than how to try to stop progress. That’s what’s beginning to happen right now. And that’s what really makes Remix optimistic.

MIT: How does this hybrid economy that you posit in the book change the definition of the word “original”?

Lessig: In a hybrid world where lots of people are developing and spreading remixes, the question of originality is very important. But in fact it becomes harder to demonstrate your talent or your creativity in this context because your creativity comes from your ability to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the material that you’re working with. People who’ve never done remixes, or have never gotten close to people doing remixes, think it’s easy. They think it’s all about just copying. But to do it well requires some pretty significant talent. It’s different from writing a song from scratch but it still is a talent that’s going to be creating a significant amount of competition among people trying to do it well.

MIT: There have always been cover versions in which the performer totally re-imagines the original. How is what’s happening now different from that?

Lessig: In one sense it’s exactly like that, in one sense it’s about how do you re-use or remake an earlier bit of creativity. But rather than it being one bit of creativity, like one song, or one album, it’s mixing together a whole bunch of different bits of creativity and creating something new out of it. What we need is what people who do cover versions have the right to, non-discriminatory access to the bits of culture that might be put together to produce something interesting or new and compelling.

MIT: Many examples in Remix come from the entertainment business. Can you give us some good, kind of pithy examples of how the notion of a read/write culture is relevant to the non-entertainment businesses?

Lessig: It started with the free software movement. GNU Linux begins with Richard Stallman launching the GNU movement to build a free operating system. Then Linus Torvalds coming along and provides the kernel so that by 1994 or 1995 it begins to be good enough that it could compete with Microsoft as an operating system. At that point, commercial entities like Red Hat come and say, “Wow, here’s a great opportunity for us,” and they try to leverage that sharing economy through a commercial entity. Red Hat was just one of many to produce value for the commercial entity. That’s a classic paradigm of a hybrid. A company like Red Hat needs to make sure that it innovates in a way that doesn’t poison the sharing economy, that’s contributing to the production of Linux. They’ve got to encourage openness in the way they function so they don’t begin to seem like the enemy. The rest of the creative world is going to look more like Red Hat or Ubuntu in the future, than it looks like IBM or the Microsoft of 10 years ago.

MIT: Web 2.0 is famously about harnessing this sort of collective intelligence, particularly from data that people cast off rather than input directly. What do you see as the most compelling examples of products or services or works of art coming out of data that people cast off?

Lessig: The most compelling example is Google. Google’s enormous power comes from the company figuring out very early on that if they captured every bit of data, they could build an enormous value on top of it. When you search Google, Google’s giving you something and you’re giving Google something. The search itself isn’t giving Google anything. But when you then respond to the results of the search by picking a particular link, Google learns something from that, and when Google matches that to everything else you’ve done, Google learns an enormous amount in addition to what you’re giving, what you give just by clicking a particular link. It’s architected to make it so that when I’m doing what I want to do I’m giving Google something of enormous value that it can then leverage. Economists will say this is not new to the market. Financial markets function by trading on the value produced by information produced by people making trades in the marketplace. I learn something when I start seeing prices going up on a certain stock. I learn something about that company that I otherwise wouldn’t have known. The people who are making the trades, because of the rules of the marketplace, can’t help but reveal that information. They’d much rather be able to trade it secretly and not reveal the price exchange, but the market imposes that constraint so that the whole market benefits from the revealing of that information. It’s not like this is the first time we’ve found ways to begin to produce value out of information that’s unintentionally or, as a by-product, revealed. But I think that the Internet lets us leverage that value much more than we ever have been able to before.

For more on Lawrence Lessig’s work, visit his website. A free, Creative Commons-licensed version of Remix will be available there shortly.