Remix - A Review (or perhaps just some thoughts)

01 February 2009

IMG_3376A few of my fellow twitterites  have asked me to share my thoughts on Lawrence Lessig's Remix.  Now that I have finally finished the book, here they are.

Lessig is to law and technology what Stephen Hawking is to physics.  There's a reason Remix is on airplanes, coffee tables and nightstands around the country, and it's not just because of the pretty colors on the cover.  His stories are familiar, his language easily accessible and his explanations simple, yet thorough.  His message is clear: Our current system is turning our kids into criminals.  "They come to like life as a 'pirate'." However...

Lessig is a lawyer.  Remix is written by a lawyer.  Sounds like I'm stating the obvious, but here's why:  A lawyer is supposed to persuade you, to present his side and convince you that it's the right answer.  He does this by presenting facts and drawing you through arguments down a path that feels logical.  If he does it well, you don't even realize how far you've traveled during the course of his argument.  Lessig does it well.

I'm all for Lessig getting more people over to his side, but the problem is that there are some places in the book where the logic of the argument is stretched just a little too much.  If you're reading and going along with it, you won't notice; you'll probably be on his side.  But, as soon as you catch one of these, you start to feel sort of tricked and wonder where else he's pulled the wool over your eyes.   Hopefully, the sudden realization of feeling duped will encourage people to think critically about what Lessig is saying, help them draw their own conclusions from the information he presents and give them something to contribute to the dialogue on copyright reform.


Throughout the book, Lessig consistently interweaves history with the future.  We see not only where we are and where he'd like us to be, but how where we've been fits in with these things.  From the development of technology to the development of the copyright law and, more importantly, the development of the clash between the two.   The book opens with the two in a head-on battle, horns locked together and then goes on to explain how they got that way and how to pry them apart without completely killing either.

The preface and the first section, entitled "Cultures," were a really quick read, but then came section two, "Economies".  It was like someone had stuck a different book in the middle of the one I was reading.  A classmate of mine described it as "a 100 page tangent".  Despite knowing something about open source software and being familiar with Linux, I still found the section hard to plow through and a little off to the side of Lessig's main argument.  Perhaps the tangental feeling is because Lessig is breaking things down so simply.  By the end of the section, you'll really understanding the three types of economies: sharing, commercial and hybrid and their roles in society's relationships to copyright.  (Though I'm still wondering why so much Linux/Unix/etc. information was needed.)

About 50 pages into the book, you get the idea that Lessig would like everything to be released on a cc-by-nc license (creative commons attribution non-commercial), maybe even throw in sa for good measure (share alike).  By the end of the book, he's pretty much said just that.  This doesn't sound like such a bad idea, especially if it's done in the manner of Creative Commons as "an alternative, privately built copyright system," where the system is comprised of those who have chosen to opt into it. 

There's a lot of good ideas in the book and a lot of good observations about society.  Lessig points out that today's society demands access.  It's expected.  It doesn't necessarily follow that this access has to be free, but it has to exist.  Effects of the copyright law, he explains, are interfering with that access.  They are also interfering with the way our culture communicates and creates.  We are, what he calls, a 'read-write' culture as opposed to the 'read-only' culture of the last century.  This point was painfully obvious to me while reading the book.  It felt strange to read something to which I could not post a comment or where I could not click a link to get more information.  I couldn't say, "hey, you're missing the word 'at' in the first sentence of the second paragraph on page 65," or "what about....?"  As a blogger and someone who spends a lot of time reading other blogs, I'm used to a conversation, to words that talk to me, invite me to respond and respond back.  Here, the words were talking at me.

Despite his great perceptiveness about our culture, there are also points in Remix where Lessig seems to be writing, not from the customary ivory-tower, but rather from a Bay-Area bubble.  Scattered throughout the book are examples or comparisons that the reader is obviously supposed to think are ridiculous.  Most people in the Bay Area (of California) would probably have that reaction, many people in other parts of the country, especially the large middle, would not.  In other places, his arguments seem to ignore important "east-coast" (i.e. government) factors.  Lessig himself acknowledges that he is ignoring the US's international obligations for the sake of simplicity when he talks about possible copyright reform - and he does, in the footnotes, offer some suggestions - but these suggestions are short-sited.

Lessig sets out five suggestions for the law to help the law better conform with society and then also some suggestions for helping society conform to the law.  The two might not be meeting at the middle, but looking for change from both sides is an important step that many critical of the current copyright/piracy situation fail to take.

The book finishes with a dramatic, Obama-esque soliloquy that sums up where Lessig believes we're headed and leaves us filled with hope that we can reform not only copyright law, but the entire governmental system.  It's also a beautiful depiction of Lessig's own transition, from the copyright and technology work that made him famous to the Congressional reform on which he is now focusing.

There's a lot to agree with in Remix, there's also a lot to disagree with, but most importantly, there's a lot to make you think.  You'll walk away with a better understanding of us, of what we value, how we communicate and how the law affects us all.  Hopefully, you'll also walk away with ideas on how you can contribute to the debate and copyright law remix.



In his acknowledgements, Lessig thanks a lot of people, but he also recognizes someone whose work he thought deserved to be presented by the author herself: "Dana Boyd generously shared her rich and extraordinarily interesting learning about youth and creativity.  In the end, I came to believe that the research should first be presented by her."  This work recently became available to the public under a cc-by-nc-nd license.  You can download it here.


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