Remix by Lawrence Lessig

by Derek Beres

24 November 2008


“They are dazzled by the machines they import,” wrote Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul in his 1979 classic, A Bend in the River. “That is part of their intelligence; but they soon start behaving as though they don’t just own the machines, but the patents as well; they would like to be the only men in the world with such magical instruments.” While the author may have been referring to the character Mahesh’s fascination with the opening of his BigBurger franchise in Africa, we can understand, and sympathize with the universality of this statement.

Men have long hoped to own the machine and the patent with it, though that process was not so begrudgingly legislated until the 20th Century. In his previous book, Free Culture, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig challenged the trademark process like no one else was able to. Not only did he make his plea against the overbearing legislation in which grandmothers and tots were being called to court over downloading “scandals,” but he did what few other authors attempt: something about it. His Creative Commons trademarks have helped level the playing field in entertainment, offering the creator of art numerous levels of control over their creations.

cover art


Lawrence Lessig

Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy


Remix reads like a eulogy for Lessig’s decade-plus work in the field. It is his siren call, his offering of how the industry could benefit both corporation and consumer. He has recently announced that he’s done all he can in that realm, and instead of beating (and beating and beating) the proverbial dead horse, he will be focusing his efforts on corruption in Washington. He is not looking to franchise his own industry of trademark philosophy—he has raised the baby; now it’s time to let him stand up for himself.

More than anything, Lessig understands and often wrestles with a rather understated theory: common sense. Many of our ideas about the presentation and execution of entertainment have been carefully molded by a very small number of people who want the general population to believe that this is how entertainment should be presented and executed. From the outset, Lessig tackles this demon: “Here were two examples of free riding: people downloading Britney Spears’ music without paying her and people listening to ‘All Things Considered’ without paying NPR. With one, we criminalize the free riding. With the other, we don’t. Why?”

The answer is not so clear-cut as “well radio is free”. In fact, the answer is not even so important to Lessig, who would much rather ask questions of the younger generation and understand them on their terms, not by the terms set by elders with patents and machines. Joseph Campbell once stated that religion should reform every 20 years, so that each generation can grasp the concepts on their terms, not in outdated forms. Lessig makes a similar appeal, breaking down the exchange of media into two very basic components: RO and RW.

Borrowing the concept from two ways to utilize CDRs—“Read Only” and “Read/Write”—Lessig outlines common ground between the aim of companies, which essentially rely on the former, and the general (and especially younger) population, who want all their media to be of the latter. An RO culture is given information without the possibility of dialogue: newspapers, for one. An RW culture immediately expresses comments, ideas, and concerns: blogs. In many ways, the latter is much more along the lines of tribalism, where people do not simply want information fed to them. They want to stir the pot and add their own ingredients.

Lessig spends much of his time going over the growing acceptance of RW culture, using very common examples: Google, Amazon, Netflix. He does utilize the trajectory of recent history as we begin to reorient how our media is ingested and processed; the 30-year difference between major network television and TiVo, for example. When All in the Family is what everyone discussed at work, you had a monoculture. This was perfect for a network that craved consumption, not reflection. With thousands of channels (one of my favorite lines: “‘Channels’ were tools to channel people into watching one mix of content rather than another.”), the chance of any two people watching the same thing is much slimmer.

The author is not overly romantic; he does not believe that “free art” helps anyone, recognizing that file sharing should be legislated. Yet the manner in which record labels and movie houses are going about it does not help—more and more files are being swapped, even with more and more lawsuits being called into action. It seems that these forms of media will go the way of writing, an art form that has never been legislated to the degree of music and film. As Lessig writes, “What happens when writing with film (or music, or images, or every other form of ‘professional speech’ from the 20th Century) becomes as democratic as writing with text?”

We can even use this review as an example. It is generally understood that in quoting an author, I do not need permission from the publisher. It would only get sticky if I were to use the lines as if they were my own, and even then it only becomes really problematic if I try to sell the work for a profit (or publish it as a piece of academia to promote my own supposed ideologies). With entities like YouTube and programs like Final Cut and iMovie, or music with Garage Band, Reason, ProTools, etc., what Lessig is calling for is to understand the difference between an original piece of art and a copy. The remix—the philosophy of the entire book—is our ability to take an already existing piece of work and build upon it. This is a very natural human occupation. In fact, we are using one such art right now, something that we did not invent but are making it our own, day by day. It’s called language.

The most rewarding aspect of Remix is the humanity Lessig invokes in the process of media: “RW culture ... touches social life differently. It gives the audience something more. Or better, it asks something more of the audience. It is offered as a draft. It invites a response. In a culture in which it is common, its citizens develop a kind of knowledge that empowers as much as it informs or entertains.” That is, we become active participants in the creation of our culture—again, much more aligned with the codes of tribalism than even those of democracy, in which the citizen is allowed one vote every few years; hardly a cause for celebration when contemplating the hands-on formation of a society.

Even deeper is Lessig’s own transformation, for it allows us to dwell on our own metamorphosis in the Digital Age. Being a lawyer, Lessig was reared into a discipline in which legal writings were published in journals and circulated around the field, with little to no chance of feedback. The art of blogging was (and is) emotionally challenging for him: “Even unfair and mistaken criticism cuts me in ways that are just silly. If I read a bad comment before bed, I don’t sleep. It I trip upon one when I’m trying to write, I can be distracted for hours. I fantasize about creating an alter ego who responds on my behalf. But I don’t have the courage for even that deception.”

During a time when dime-a-dozen lawsuits are being assigned to random ISP numbers, this little light of humanity is sorely needed. It reminds us that we are all creators of our experiences, and two very simple ideas, both learned in nursery school—the art of sharing, and the art of respect for others—could very well be the basic building blocks we need to find to build our new media upon.

Lessig’s solution? The hybrid economy, one that fuses RO and RW culture. The companies already doing it? The aforementioned, like Google and Amazon. What’s most exciting (and to some, most frightening) is that there are no clear-cut rules, no definitive answer to how to sell to consumers in the 21st Century. Again, tribalism: we are empowered to market our niche in our own unique ways. Gone are the days of the million-album seller; instead, hello to one hundred bands selling 10,000 albums apiece. The playing field is leveled.

As Lessig beautifully concludes, the oversensitive, hyper-emotional media industry does not necessarily care about its content creators—their pleas to “protect the artists” is meant to invoke the same sort of pity and fear they’ve always peddled. The reason for their demise “has nothing to do with stupidity. It has nothing to do with ignorance. The simple reason we wage a hopeless war against our kids is that they have less money to give to a political campaign than Hollywood does”. And so Lessig enters the next phase of his career—political corruption—as we implement the ideologies he has earmarked for us. The creator remains in power of his creation; we all share the bounty from the hunt.



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//Mixed media