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Interview with Lawrence Lessig

The Guardian interviews Lawrence Lessig and learns about the beginning of his interest in cyber law and the start of the Free Culture movement.

“This insight – that computer code (the “architecture”) can function as a kind of law in the online world – lies at the heart of Lessig’s first book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. As he soon realised, “the most interesting context for that was intellectual property”, because there were examples of code trumping law – notably digital rights management.

There was another reason why Lessig focused on this area. “It wasn’t a fair fight: all the great lawyers were on the side of IP maximalism [the view that intellectual property (IP) should be protected forever] because they were all hired by Hollywood. So I kind of felt like a lawyer with a guilty conscience, and just got into it to try to see if there was a way to balance it.”

Lessig founded the Free Culture movement to bring the ideals of Free Software to the larger community of culture creators.

“Lessig has made the book [Free Culture] freely available online (, using a licence drawn up by his Creative Commons project, set up in 2001 as another response to the extension of copyright. Through these licences, which hand back to users some rights granted by copyright to creators – such as those to make copies or derivative works – Lessig hopes to provide a legal framework in which free culture can bloom.

The analogy with Richard Stallman’s GNU General Public License is evident: “I think of the free culture movement as inspired by the free software movement,” Lessig says. “I think it’s going to be a more significant movement than the free software movement because whatever the importance of the freedom of coders, coders will still be just a tiny proportion of the public, but culture is … much broader.”

The ideal for copyright reform, in Lessig’s view, is to return the statute to its roots and strip away much of the additional powers it has been granted in recent years. He also suggests several adaptations to make copyright more appropriate in light of the unique capabilities enabled by digital media and the internet.

“Lessig would like to see copyright reduced to 14 years, renewable to 28, as laid down by the 1710 Statute of Anne, the basis of all subsequent legislation in the UK and many countries. He also wants the emphasis on copying as the trigger for copyright to be removed. “In a digital age, copying is as natural as breathing” – every web page you view is technically a copy – “and the idea that the law should be invoked every time there’s a trigger of copying is totally inefficient.” He suggests a different approach: “[If] you’re distributing something publicly for commercial purposes then that’s the appropriate thing to be taxing with the copyright act.”

More realistically, Lessig is trying to limit the damage that copyright extensions cause to culture by requiring people to register for them, rather than receiving them automatically. “The vast majority would never request the extension, and so most stuff would pass into the public domain and the cost of perpetually extending copyrights would disappear.”

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