Posts tagged ‘Larry Lessig’

The prodigal son returns

By , 13 December, 2008, No Comment

Larry Lessig, whose work I’ve written about before, is packing his bags for a cross country schelp. He’s leaving his post at Stanford Law to chair an ethics center at Harvard.

For some time, Lessig has been synonymous with the West Coast attitude to IP law. As the home of Silicon Valley, the engineers whose inventions are rewriting our economy, and with its laid back libertarian social ideals, California made a natural base for the free culture movement Lessig championed.

But Lessig didn’t start there; he started among the more moderate academe in Cambridge, and even did a stint amongst the uber-capitalists at U-Chicago. Since he left, Harvard has been working overtime to cultivate its own IP department and the big coup came in 2007, when they picked up Yochai Benkler from Yale.

Benkler is the anti-Lessig: just as committed to open source culture, but in the sense of free markets, not free lunch. To Benkler, a decentralized, deregulated web creates new opportunities for competition and new sources of profit. [Note that his book is called the Wealth of Networks after Adam Smith.] To Lessig, an open web is pure collaboration, a system with the power to undermine profit motive itself. At least that’s how his early work reads, though he recently tried to back down from this position in an interview on Charlie Rose (maybe this was initiation for his new job). Over the years, then, Benkler’s view came to symbolize the East Coast approach to IP law as much as Lessig was the California hippie.

Now Harvard wants to be innovative, so they’re trying to collect all the lights of IP law. Is this the new link economy at work, forcing opponents to collaborate? It’s likely that copyright law (which really sucks right now) will be rewritten in the next few years. And Lessig and Benkler are surely the people who will be called in to help pols draft new laws. Will working side by side affect the legal ideas these two develop?

In any case, I’ll be curious to see how the two of them interact at faculty lunches.

Larry Lessig admits “he’s an old Communist”

By , 23 November, 2008, 2 Comments

Four years ago, Lessig’s book Free Culture unleashed a movement to abolish copyright and bring down the evil corporate producers of “mainstream culture.” I have never believed in this movement. Tonight, Lessig told Charlie Rose he doesn’t believe it either.

He says he’s an “old Communist,” a la Gorbachev, trying to reform a system; the younger free culture radicals who quote him are Yelstins, who’ve taken his policies too far. Lessig says he doesn’t want to get rid of copyright because it still incentivizes some people to produce valuable content who wouldn’t do it for free. His hippie proteges think anyone who produces art for money is not worth society’s time. Now whenever I’ve read Lessig, I’ve always felt he falls on the radical side of the line. Either I was wrong, or he’s now changing tacks because he realizes the moderate approach has a better shot of reaching its goals.

He’s not alone. Over at BuzzMachine, Jeff Jarvis says he doesn’t have it out for print media and media corporations at all and outlines a business model for how established news organizations can coexist with a gift economy of citizen-journalists. It’s a good plan and it strikes me as a deviation from the things Jarvis has written in the past; again I wonder if (as he claims) this is what he meant all along, or if he’s just getting practical at last.

Either way, it’s good to have people of Lessig’s and Jarvis’s clout advocating a middle-ground. Then again, Gorbachev tried to remind people to take it slow too…and it didn’t work out so great for him.

Capitalism 2.0: If you really want to beat them, join them

By , 4 May, 2008, 2 Comments

I’m pretty skeptical of free culture political theory. The Free Culture radicals (people like Larry Lessig, McKenzie Wark and Richard Stallman) argue that the collaborative/non-proprietary ethos of online software production, and the YouTube!-Wikipedia-Napster world it’s unleashed, necessarily contribute to a communitarian model of society: that Web 2.0 technologies represent a shift away from classical economics.

Even after taking a media studies class in college where the professor, Mark Tribe, was something of an open source evangelist, I have my doubts about this technological determinism. But I can sometimes see where the radical theory comes from.

A recent move by Google is a case-in-point. Among the keys to the company’s success is their model for online advertising–using search technologies and consumer behavior online to target ads, and selling that capability to others. One of the very Web 2.0-esque features of that model is the fact that a small-time company has a decent chance to compete with the big shots, since it’s popularity with users (not corporate ad dollars paid in advance) that sends an advert to the top of Google’s lists. That’s one point for the radicals.

This week, Google decided to extend this model to television with Adwords TV. Anybody can make a video spot online (Google has tools to help you do it yourself), and use their crowd-sourcing model to pick a target audience/time slot to air it. You make all the decisions online, pay by credit card and Google does the leg work of getting your ad on TV. The DIY approach fits the collaborative utopia Lessig and Stallman envisage.

Today’s entrepreneurs sometimes argue that Web 2.0 technologies are “additive” not “competitive,” meaning that one new tech feature isn’t out to replace another. You can have a profile on MySpace AND Facebook. Where video may have killed the radio star, Google’ s new ad scheme suggests that Web 2.0 can coexist with the old-school small screen.

Warm and fuzzy as that sounds, however, it seems to me that Google’s philosophy is as old-school as TV itself. Recognizing that people still prefer watching the the Super Bowl on the couch with snacks to YouTube-ing by themselves, they’ve found a way to make online dollars from offline behavior. Google’s “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach sounds to me like a high tech version of age old game theory.