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Text Reflection: “Remix” by Lawrence Lessig

July 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Lawrence Lessig’s “Remix”, subtitled “Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy” is a brief and somewhat conversational exploration of copyright issues in the age of the internet. In the majority of its chapters, Mr. Lessig focuses on the ways in which copyright law affects society’s interaction with culture. He suggests copyright laws be adjusted to reflect the new forms of expression created by the internet and stresses, at numerous points in the text, the importance of “decriminalizing our kids.”

With the dawn of Youtube and other sights in which individuals sample material owned by others, a rash of copyright litigation (a la the campaign of the RIAA) has lead to a mass-criminalization of innocent figures looking only to participate in society.  The text highlights the historical evolution of copyright and includes classification systems to better understand economies and the cultural traditions in which these economies function.

At its core, the text focuses on “RO” culture versus “RW” culture.

  • RO, or “read-only” culture, is classified by a culture that simply absorbs cultural material. In RO, one simply absorbs the material as presented. There is no participation in RO.
  • “RW”, or “read-write” culture, is a system where a user participates in a two-way relationship to the material.  In this system the receiver is actively considering and creating on the basis of viewing.  The RW user is more active and creates material that responds or is inspired by the viewing.

Lessig extends these distinctions to mark the differences in cultures through history. Most importantly, the text reveals that technology has increased the ability for individuals to participate in a RW basis. This is a great thing, Lessig argues, but something that remains controversial due to copyright law. In many cases copyright law inadvertently moves to squash RW culture by protecting the very assets used to interact at the RW basis.

RW culture is certainly a major gift of the internet age. Indeed, the internet has largely killed off the “couch potato” form of participation in which a user simply sits and receives information. Technology allows a user to think critically about the material, to seek out additional material that may enrich the experience and even to participate in a way that both nourishes intellectual curiosity and extends the entertainment experience. Technology has instilled in us the possibility of doing more and, as Mr. Lessig’s text suggests, society needs to encourage such behavior for the benefit of all involved.

Lessig walks a fine line with the copyright issue. Clearly he is leery of the accusation should be eliminated. At multiple times in the text he both asserts the need for copyright and strikes down the claims by some that copyright should be abolished. He is clearly aware that copyright plays a crucial role. Instead he argues an adjustment to the policy so that copyright is more in line with logic and with fairness. It is here though, with the need for a sense of what is fair and correct, that the text loses its power. Mr. Lessig seems to be unaware of where the line needs to be drawn. Yes, copyright is extensive and yes those who flagrantly use the work of others to garner profit deserve punishment and are unfair. Where do we draw the line though? At what point can we allow individuals to sample and use other material? What amount is fair?

“Remix” is an interesting look at RO/RW culture and presents keen insight into the state of contemporary society in light of technology. While instructive it does fails to provide a clear explanation of how to make art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. The text does not provide specific details or instructions and functions mainly as an introduction to the state of the matter. Those who crave an explanation need look elsewhere.

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