Larry Lessig Defends Copyright, Loves Charlie Rose Remixes

This guest post is written by Matt Rutherford, Web Strategist and technology producer for Charlie Rose. Matt focuses on the macro themes affecting the internet and the wider world.

In an intimate interview with Charlie Rose on PBS tonight, and available here, Stanford professor Larry Lessig reveals some profound views on copyright, remix culture, and the new hybrid economy that is emerging.

In particular, Lessig speaks out against the abolitionist movement growing against copyright:

My real fear is that the last 10 years have unleashed a kind of revolutionary attitude among the generation that will take over in 10 years. And it will be hard for them to distinguish between sensible copyright legislation and the kind that we’ve got right now. So my real fear is we’re going to lose control of this animal… I just want to reform [copyright] to make it make sense.

A reform of copyright is clearly overdue. We require a new form of regulation that takes into account the ease and speed of digital distribution and appropriation. Every week, books cross my desk clamoring for this change – some of which are certainly worth reading. And as Lessig explains on the show, it’s counterproductive to continue to criminalize kids for file-sharing, remixing and recreating with content. Copyright was established to encourage creativity, not stifle it.

Cultural Roots

Lessig thinks on a macro time scale. For him, the emerging “read-write creativity” seen on YouTube and elsewhere is actually a return to our natural cultural roots. Historically, man has always absorbed and re-created culture – the symbolic retelling of stories and re-interpreting of songs on the front porch. It is only the emergence of mass media in the last century that caused us to accept a passive relationship with culture.

What’s so extraordinary about the last four years is that they’ve demonstrated that the technology of the internet is giving us a chance to go back to the way culture has been from the beginning…Only the 20th century was a deviation from this. But from the beginning of culture, it was a normal thing for people to be able to create and recreate the most important parts of culture that were around them.

As evidence of this, Lessig cites the numerous Charlie Rose remix videos that are floating around the web.

I’ve seen some of these Rose remixes, and they are enormous. They’re fantastic. But I would hope, you know, eventually you could be in a position to say I want to encourage this, please. Please do it.

A lot of these remixes also come across my desk. In the spirit of research, here are a few of the best so far: Beckett, Kung Fu, nuclear weapons. They’re all superb. And yes, we do encourage this. As Lessig says, Please do it.

Hybrid Economy

There remains the fundamental question of how a ‘new’ copyright can maintain revenue. After all, despite the ease of pointing out the flaws in the current system, it’s quite another matter to propose a viable alternative. Lessig sees the solution, in part, coming from a new hybrid economy, one that combines the traditional commercial economy with sharing economies seen in Wikipedia, YouTube and elsewhere:

Businesses have begun to realize that the world is in part divided between commercial economies like buying and selling books, and sharing economies like Wikipedia where enormous value is produced for nothing, people are doing it all for free. The most interesting thing I think we’ve seen though in the last five years is the development of a hybrid economy where commercial entities are trying to leverage value out of these sharing economies or vice versa, sharing economies trying to leverage value out of commercial entities. And this hybrid depends upon the commercial entity showing the proper respect for the creation in the sharing economy, and giving space to it, encouraging it so that the sharing economy can produce enormous value that is beneficial to the people inside, and also to the commercial business.

Lessig’s Big Idea

Lessig concludes the interview with his ‘big idea’. It is an inspiring, and elegant reminder that we are in the midst of an unprecedented social change. Just as the Gutenberg press facilitated the spread of the Protestant Reformation, fundamentally altering the course of Western civilization, so too is the internet beginning to spark tectonic changes, the breadth of which we don’t yet have the historical perspective to grasp. As Lessig explains:

I think the big idea, as every big idea is, is just one amazing step beyond where we are right now. And I think you think about the Obama campaign, something like Wikipedia, something like the stuff that’s going on on the Internet, the kind that I think of as read write culture. What it really is doing is reviving the sense that people can do something. Not the passive couch potato politics or couch potato culture, but that they can do something. We’re close to making it really effective. I think the next cycle, what you’re going to see in the way politics functions, will be unrecognizable, even from today. But when we’re there, it will be a revival of ideals, aspirations about democracy that will surprise us. The cynicism that we had in the 20th century will look very 20th century.

Larry Lessig’s interview on Charlie Rose was first broadcast on Friday 11/21/08 on PBS, and is available in full or in clips: Larry Lessig (full segment), Larry Lessig (clips). Matt Rutherford can be reached at