Lawrence Lessig's Remix questions copyright laws

Remix. By Lawrence Lessig. Penguin, 352 pp, $28.50, hardcover

Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig is one of the leading advocates of copyright reform, and over the past decade has written several books, given dozens of lectures, and published hundreds of blog entries on the subject. He’s not an abolitionist—he just wants to overhaul this pre-Internet legislation and bring it up to speed with the digital age.

His opening example in his latest book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, demonstrates just how creaky and antiquated the current American laws are. In early 2007, Universal Records aggressively pursued legal action against Pennsylvania resident Stephanie Lenz for uploading copyrighted content onto YouTube. The video in question was a 30-second clip of her toddler dancing to a barely audible Prince song playing in the background.

Why, Lessig asks, does copyright law render this activity illegal? “No one,” he writes, “would download Lenz’s video to avoid paying Prince for his music.” Remix takes this objection one step further. Because the majority of computer-savvy youth violates copyright law daily (not just by file sharing, but also by remixing music and movie clips, and by writing fan fiction), Lessig argues that an entire generation is growing up with a deep-seated skepticism of the law’s ability to properly do its job. “What kind of moral platform will sustain our kids?” he asks. “What other crimes will to them seem natural?”

Lessig then turns his attention to setting up a framework for reshaping the law and preventing this desensitization. He contrasts the unique features and benefits of commercial and sharing economies, then looks to “hybrid” models, those that successfully balance the two, as the future of successful industry. The vast majority of ads on the on-line classifieds site Craigslist, for example, are free to post and read, and users have the power to flag material that is inappropriate; this fundamental control makes the small amount of paid content much easier for users to accept.

Remix is an accessible, thought-provoking, and thoroughly informed look at an issue that has particular resonance for Canadians, as our revamped copyright bill addressing digital content is still forthcoming. Chances are, it won’t look good for remixers—or dancing toddlers.