Archive:Transcript of Lessig At Swarthmore

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For more information about the talk and the video of the talk (so you can write a transcript for it), see Lessig At Swarthmore.

The Talk

Analog Culture

So there's a guy named Steve Manes. He works as a columnist in a column he self-titles "digital tool" at a magazine which self describes itself as "Capitalist Tool" (Forbes.com) and he told me I can't tell the following story, so I want to start with the following story.


In 1928, a hero of mine, really, a hero -- Walt Disney, created this creature, Steamboat Willie, who would go on to be Mickey Mouse, and it's from Mickey Mouse that we get the Disney corporation and everything great that follows from that. But in 1928, also there was another great comic genius, a man named Buster Keaton, who, before Steamboat Willie, produced this work, "Steamboat Bill, Junior"... and in an important sense, as film historians have noted, it's in part based upon Steamboat Bill Junior that Steamboat Willie was born. So in a sense it's Steamboat Bill Junior that gives us Steamboat Willie, Steamboat willie that gives us Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse that gives us the Dickey Disney Corporation. [laughter] This is a kind of creativity. It's a creativity that we should celebrate and remember. You could call it Disney creativity, that's a little bit misleading, it's Walt Disney creativity. It's the freedom (as Apple used to say before Disney told them to stop) to Rip, Mix and Burn the culture that's around you. The freedom to rexpress the culture that is around you as a contribution to recreating the culture. It's a freedom, a creativity, that defined most of the great works that the Disney corporation produced. (All of them except, of course, except for this embarrassing example from a couple years ago [Treasure Planet].) [laughter] This creativity defines our history of creativity in America.

That's a part of the analog culture, here's another part of an analog culture.

1972, there was an event that gets associated with an apartment complex, Watergate. Corruption by the president and his associates, leading to the bugging of the Democratic national headquarters... a story that was broken, a conspiracy broken by two reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, working for the Washington Post. This attack on a president, President Nixon, supported by this extraordinarily powerful organization, the Washington Post, succeeded eventually in forcing, in 1974, Nixon to resign. They revealed something about the truth of this presidency. They spoke truth to this power, but because they were supported by the Washington Post, that truth had effect, and this man stepped down.

That's a glimpse of an analog culture.

Digital Culture

We're 10 years now into the digital culture. 10 years into the space where this culture defines how we get access to and recreate our culture, and these 10 years have begun to show the changes that are possible here.

So for example, in 19.. in 2001, this man, the Senate leader, Trent Lott, decided he'd say nice things about his buddy Strom Thurmond... nice things about Strom's Thurmond's views relating to his history as a segregationist, which were embarrassing to Strom Thurmond's memory, because Strom Thurmond's memory was all about recreating the memory of Strom Thurmond, to recreate the memory so that we don't remember that he was a racist segregationist. We try to recreate that memory, and Trent Lott blew it because he reminded the world about this fact. Now for 2 days, Trent Lott believed this story would bubble and then disappear... but it didn't. Because the story was recreated in a new space, a digital space, blog space, where amateur journalists -- not amateur in the sense of bad but amateur in the sense of unpaid, the way Olympics celebrates amateur sports -- amateur journalists took this story and researched it and filled out the history so that they could demonstrate this wasn't a one-off event, it was a pattern. The Senate majority leader repeatedly invoked in this favorable way praise for this racist past. And they built a case, which eventually commercial media could no longer ignore. And so when it came back to commercial media, this man too was forced to resign.

Blog space. Having the effect of the Washington Post, but for a very different reason. I've talked a little about the power of this space, here's something about the creativity.

This is a kind of Walt Disney creativity I want to show you... you hear a lot about piracy, I'm going to show you some piracy here. This is Walt Disney creativity, but because it's not limited to a few powerful, wealthy, corporations, because it's spread to anybody with a $1500 dollar machine, you can think of it as Walt Disney creativity squared. Here's some instances of this creativity...

[Hey Ya video] Here's some more Walt Disney creativity... [Bush vs. Bush video] Here's another example... [cue "Public Service Announcement"] the Beatles produced this extraordinary album, called the White Album. Jay-Z produced this album, the Black Album. Then a remixer of modern culture, DJ Danger Mouse, took these two and put them together and produced the Grey Album... a creativity that builds upon this technology. And finally my favorite, which is intended as ambiguous [inaudible]... [Bush & Blair love song video] This is a creativity... it's enabled by digital technology, and what that means is this is a creativity that is made available to anyone with access to a $1500 computer. It's a creativity, the power to take images and sounds and text and remix them and deliver them on a free medium, the internet, in a way that is more powerful than anything ever realized and only ever dreamed of by those who gave us the Enlightenment... the capacity to rip, mix and burn culture, producing a democratic potential that we only dream about, a creative potential that we don't even begin to understand yet... this is a technology to enable and change the way that culture gets remade. Changing the freedom to speak, because each of these artists, except number 2, has no guaranteed access to anything... but when they produce something that's demanded, it spreads broadly and powerfully, and therefore changing the power to speak, shifting it from a centralized structure of speaking which has defined our culture for the last 80 years, to something different, fundamentally different, not broadcast democracy but a kind of bottom-up democracy, not NY Times democracy but blog democracy, not the few speaking to the many, but a peer to peer architecture for culture. This is the potential that is created by this digital technology, an enormous opportunity... if the law stays out of the way.

The law gets in the way

Swarthmore vs. Diebold

...in 2003, a company you've heard of [Diebold] decided they wanted to make voting machines... maybe they decided they wanted them to be flawed, nobody knows. But these flawed voting machines were being sold, and it was important for them to defend the idea that they could be sold, and they needed therefore to cover up the reality about these voting machines. So they did what seems to be a real trend in major corporate America today... they lied. But the cool thing about the way corporations often lie is they do it in a very proper procedure, they wrote a bunch of memos about it. And of course those memos, through the activism of students here, were published to the internet, to describe to the world this extraordinary fact that a company making voting machines was knowingly going forward with machines that were flawed because it was more important to them to make their bottom line than to enable an election to be properly counted. Swarthmore put this story on the map.


Diebold responded with a simple lawyers' word, copyright. "You violated our copyright!" How? Sounds like this is an argument about honesty, or fraud in a corporation. "No! It's an argument about copyright, because you took our memos and copied them, and put them on the internet. Copyright violation. So we'll use the DMCA to force your university or college to take down your copyright infringing documents and stop this story about how we lied and were fradulent about producing voting machines."

Now these Swarthmore students, you, refused to accept this result, you fought back. Fighting this idea that a system of abstract rights called copyright could be used to silence people's speech about a matter as important as whether voting machines are functioning properly. You fought, and that fight had an effect, because quickly Diebold backed down from the claim that they ever intended to threaten Swarthmore students. No, God forbid they would ever intend, of course they wrote those threatening letters, but that was just hasty, unthinking, carelessness on their part. They love Swarthmore students, they would never do anything against the students. You fought, they lost.

Q & A

Where's the baby grand?

Question: ...Aristotle's politics. That's public domain. That publisher was saying you cannot copy something that's in public domain. Now, why isn't somebody dropping a Steinway baby grand over his head? How can that possibly be legal?

Question: So the only way to stop them is to put my Aristotle's politics on the internet and... you want it, you've got it


What if we fail?

Question: I mean, you've talked a lot about what people can do and, should you, should WE fail, what do you believe the social implications would be?


Co-opting Culture?

Question: I guess just have a question about the marginalization of culture... Before some of these restrictive copyright acts were passed, dominant cultures co-opted marginalized culture, especially music and other forms of expression, and what sorts of checks can a movement put on themselves to make sure that doesn't happen again?


What about other countries?

Question: ...accept what the world does, and eventually the US will have to follow their lead, because they'll BE in the lead. So with that in mind, what about other countries' chances of restructuring copyright, such that things will flourish outside the United States, and eventually the US will have to break down and follow their lead... Where does the US stand on the spectrum of all other nations in copyright protection?


Pessimism? Premature!

Question: You mentioned the Trent Lott case, where the case was built in the blogosphere, but change happened when it was picked up by the Washington Post. I heard a politician once say that if it doesn't happen in the press, then as far as they're concerned it doesn't happen. There was a film in the Philadelphia Film Festival recently, called [inaudible] made the point that most of the media in the United States is owned by a couple of large entities, news corps, y'know ClearChannel and stuff like that, who have in their strong interests the preservation of the new version of copyright law, which makes the whole thing sound rather [inaudible] change.