For the past decade, Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Stanford Law School, has been best known as an iconoclastic, inventive voice for copyright reform. In his new book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy (New York: Penguin, October 2008), Lessig argues that copyright law has not kept up with innovation and is in fact holding it back. Remix is of a piece with Lessig’s previous work, but it’s in the Internet arena, the focus of Remix, that he makes his most powerful arguments yet for revising copyright to enable innovation and create new markets. The Internet-enabled world of mashups and remixes — an intertwining of art that people create and art that people appropriate — has led us, Lessig argues, to a new “read/write culture.”
More than just an observer, Lessig has been involved in developing new approaches to copyright. He’s a founder of Creative Commons, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps many companies and individuals navigate the uncharted areas between full copyright, where all rights are reserved, and public domain, where none are. Creative Commons licenses are intended to help producers retain copyright, yet at the same time allow the copyrighted work to be remixed or repurposed. Creative Commons licenses let the creators of a work of art (or software, etc.) control what others can do with the material they created. Some Creative Commons licenses permit anything, others permit some changes in some circumstances and still others have different rules for for-profit and not-for-profit remixing.
The Creative Commons licenses Lessig advocates are quite timely in this age of Internet mashups — brand-new creations that emerge from the combination of multiple sources — but the friction between innovation, both technical and artistic, and rights holders is not new. Onstage at the TED2007 conference in Monterey, California, Lessig kicked off a rapid-fire talk by noting how John Philip Sousa, the master of American march music, was concerned a century ago about the invention of the phonograph because he feared it would end entertainment as a form in which amateurs could be stars.