“A Pirate Nation”

“Democratic tools gave ordinary people a way to express themselves more easily than any tools could have before.” –Lessig p.  33


Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (project: here) discusses questions of culture, technology, piracy, and property.  In using the phrase “free culture,” Lessig makes the argument that we have a say in how culture is produced and circulated.  He describes free culture as a balance between “anarchy and control” (xiv).  He argues that the internet has had an incredible impact on the way culture is made, which perhaps is viewed as a pretty standard now, but probably looked different back in 2004 (Lessig 7).  I think Lessig’s distinction between “commercial culture” and “non-commercial culture” is an interesting one because it highlights the importance of capitalism in our society and in the processes of culture production (7).  I wonder if this kind of labeling opens up all possibilities for how we understand culture of the internet, culture on the internet, and culture created by the internet.  Lessig focuses on something not-so-surprising: corporate interests in connection with “property” and through many different angles. With these corporate interests having the power to create, mold, and influence policy (and having the finances to fight these laws when necessary), we see a legacy of restriction in the circulation of creative works.

Lessig explores the concepts of “piracy” and “property” throughout Free Culture.  I like the fact that his aims align with his methodology.  He makes these ideas accessible to members of the public, and writes in a way that is casual, down-to-earth, and interesting. I like that Lessig contextualizes piracy and his other major concepts through his use of metaphor and examples before attempting to unpack his analysis.  He historically the idea that all these other forms of media, including radio, cable tv, etc. were all born of a kind of piracy.  The idea of our law limiting itself to American works is telling for the story of nation embedded in the piracy narrative (Lessig 63).  THIS IS AMERICAN PROPERTY (with laws borrowed from the English.)  The debates about “piracy” are interesting to think about in both the historical and contemporary senses, and from the American perspective.  Lessig traces these ideas to Europe, which made me think of classical musicians.  Composers like Beethoven and Mozart have traditionally learned (and produced) music via the imitation of previous composer’s works, and built off of the works of others as well. Lessig makes an interesting point about performances of Shakespeare’s works.  It is ridiculous to think of a clearinghouse that must Shakespeare’s works at this point in time.  When profit is involved, things always get complicated.  Ideas about piracy and property in certain films (concepts which Lessig discusses when thinking about different types of “piracy”) can be found in Chuck Tryon’s Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media and Convergence.  This book explores fan practices in response to movies and media, among many other things.  Tryon points out, “In fact, while studios initially regarded many fan practices, such as making movie remixes and posting them on YouTube, as potentially a threat to profits, most major media conglomerates have grown to embrace such activities, correctly seeing them as reinforcing, not challenging, the processes of exchange” (Tryon 9).  For a film class, we read this book the same week we watched and analyzed The Matrix.  Out of curiosity, I typed “Matrix Mashup” into YouTube to see what sorts of results I would get.  The results for that search alone totaled 1,410 videos, many with hundreds of thousands of views.  Popular mashup trailers included combinations of The Matrix and the film Inception.  What strikes me about this new era of fan practices is that they have become so widespread and accepted that their force may be difficult to challenge on any level.  Contrary to what one might think, massive companies now embrace these fan practices as promoting a culture surrounding a particular film.  I wonder about the ways in which companies will use (attempt to harness?) and translate this power for further commercial use and monetary gain.

As I was reading Lessig’s book, I kept thinking that I don’t want to be a “Read-Only” consumer of culture.  Maybe I should go back to trying to write some songs, I thought.  So that’s actually what I tried to do.  For the licensing exploration, my partner and I finally decided to attempt to collaborate on a song.  We were really just tossing ideas around (don’t judge too harshly!) , and here is the result: Sunday Afternoon Cure.  Sound Cloud makes it pretty easy to do creative commons licensing.   I chose their licensing option (Creative Commons) because it allows people to Share (“to copy distribute and transmit the work”) and to Remix (“to adapt the work”).  You want to remix this silly little reggae ukulele jazzy song? Suuuuuuure go ahead.  This license also has the following conditions: Attribution (“You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work))”, Noncommercial (“You may not use this work for commercial purposes”), and Share Alike (“If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one”).  The “With the understanding that” section outlines some of the other rights and conditions of the license.  I like this license because it allows ideas to move around, but I guess there is still a little “credit” built in these kinds of licenses.

I like how Creative Comments poses their “About” section  I think there are many people who are pro-open source, open-access (especially because it is being done illegal so frequently anyway).  The idea that one needs “free legal tools” in order to display content (even original ideas) strikes me as being so ingrained in American tradition, with a huge emphasis on property and the law.  It is interesting to think about open source, open-access as a growing movement as well:  “The idea of universal access to research, education, and culture is made possible by the Internet, but our legal and social systems don’t always allow that idea to be realized.”  How can we truly become more democratic?

A final note:

Lessig says, “The best of the blog entries are relatively short; they point directly to words used by others, criticizing with or adding to them.  They are arguably the most important form of unchoreographed public discourse we have” (41).  I’m still trying to make my blogs better, and I think I’ll try to stick to this formula.


About jeanettethall

graduate student in American Studies View all posts by jeanettethall

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