Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Copyright - Lawrence Lessig v. Stephen Colbert

Lawrence Lessig has some interesting perspectives and ideas about copyright. He's recently written a book - Remix, where he is arguing that it's ok to remix copyright content and not pay the original owners, or allow them to preclude the remix if the copyright owner doesn't like how their work is represented.

In the piece below, Colbert takes Lessig to task - as only Colbert can, on this subject:

Two interesting notes:
(Continued after the Jump)

1) In the piece, Colbert modifies the title, and ads a graphic to the front page (i.e. a drawing of Snoopy). The exchange goes thusly (in part):
Colbert: OK, so, I could take your book, right here, and just change the "Remix" into "Memix"

Lessig: That's Cool.

Colbert: Ok, and, and then, change it to Stephen Colbert at the bottom, add some value, like, uh, I do a pretty good Snoopy, ok. I'll do that, ok, there's my Snoopy. Ok, so now, my book my work of art. You're cool with that?

Lessig: Ok, put this on ebay, you think this is going to get more than it is on Amazon, right now or less?

Colbert: Oh much more.

Lessig: That's exactly my point. Exactly my point. You have added value to that. Bravo. My praise to you.
Here is where Lessig misses the point - in order to ADD that value, you have to first purchase a copy of the book in order to rename it and add a Snoopy drawing. I suspect Lessig's perspective would be difference if someone re-typed the entire book (or got a copy of the electronic file), added a caricature or two, and renamed it and gave it away for free, or published it themselves for a profit.

2) They, in part, continue:
Colbert: I will be very angry, and possibly litigious, if anyone out there takes this right here, this interview, right here, and remixes it with some great dance beat, and it starts showing up in clubs across america.

Lessig: Actually, we're joint copyright owners, so I'm ok with that. You can totally remix this, I'm fine with it.

Colbert: I do not give you permission.

Lessig: I give you permission.

Colbert: To bad, you've got a lawsuit on your hands, buddy.

Lessig: No, you got a lawsuit.

Colbert: copyright is eternal.

Lessig: copyright is joint for us, its ours together, we're in this together stephen.

Colbert: I want a divorce, I'm remixing this relationship.
Now, I'm pretty familiar with model releases, and personal appearance releases, and they're pretty clear: in exchange for the appearance, Viacom/Comedy Central owns the piece, and Lessig grants all rights to them to do with it what they want. Unless Lessig has re-written the standard Viacom release to allow for his joint ownership of the Copyright to the broadcast, he is mis-informed, and is advising viewers to break the law with incorrect assertions about ownership of the broadcast. The likelihood that Lessig, when talking to the Production Assistant was able to make binding changes to the appearance release, and get it signed off on by Viacom legal, is highly unlikely.

I do agree with Lessig on one thing for certain - Copyright is changing, and we need to evolve, just not in many of the ways Lessig is espousing.

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Unknown said...

It would be interesting for someone to test Lessig's point by "mixing" his book and claiming copyright on the new version and then reselling it.

I'm sure his publisher would throw a fit and would take whoever it was to court but since they were doing what Lessig endorses I'm sure the judge and defense lawyers would have a hay-day with it.

During the interview my 13 year old was amused. He loves Colbert anyway, and understands the gist of copyright and thought Lessig was way off base.

Anonymous said...

Boys and girls, copyright is changing. We can shape the change or stand our ground and get run over by a truck.

Like it or not, if we don't move forward we will be left behind.

MarcWPhoto said...

I have come to one inescapable conclusion.

Copyright in the future will belong to those with the money to enforce it. It will be enforced against those with the money to make reparation.

I would not be at all surprised if, at the end of many days, we end up with a system like Canada has where there is a tax on blank recording media, which is redistributed to copyright holders under some regime I won't pretend to understand. This will be like that, but bigger - all ISP's, all broadcast/cable/satellite bandwidth providers, etc, will pay, and it will get divided up so Disney et al can limp along in perpetuity. Anybody who wants to will be able to steal my photographs and do whatever they want with them, end of story. In other words, it'll be just like now, but I won't have the forlorn hope that some intern at a company with actual money will steal something from me and I'll be able to get some kind of recovery.


Anonymous said...



Unknown said...

insanity. I'm so glad Colbert didn't let up.

Anonymous said...

The youtube Remix is amazing! Love Colbert. Man all this copyright stuff is getting ridonkulous. I hate to say it but it seems like we're sliding down the inevitable slope of this being legal. This whole thing stinks just like the MP3 controversy 8 years ago. It might take a while but Lessig is going to win this one.

Did you see A Photo Editor's post on Richard Prince (http://www.aphotoeditor.com/2009/01/12/richard-prince-sued-by-photographer-patrick-cariou/)
getting sued recently? Right down this post's alley, except not nearly as funny as colbert.


Anonymous said...

This Lessig guy is so far off base it's a joke. What does a failed 10 year war have to do with copyright?

Anonymous said...

In the Hulu version Colbert joked that he was going to hand out photocopied versions of the book to the audience. That didn't make the cut broadcast on Comedy Central.

Pretty funny.


argv said...

I know some PhDs that believe in communism -- that, despite some of its drawbacks, it is ultimately the best thing for people in general. This kind of belief is almost always born out of strong philosophies that cannot be changed using rationale like, "well, he'd feel differently if..."

It's unclear as to whether Lessig's philosophical dogma is that extreme, but it's clear he believes that ownership of "creative" things is not in the best interests of people. Therefore, he not only doesn't care if people infringe on this work, he wants it.

Normally, I usually say that when people get to that degree of "fringe", it's better to not give them credibility by arguing with them. In this case, it's very hard to do, since Lessig seems to have a powerful PR engine behind him: he has gotten his letters published in the NYTimes Op-Ed pages and other mainstream and credible media outlets.

Though I'm not sure the best way to respond to his "anti-copyright" movement, I do know that people should not try to attack his ideas head on--you are just being entrapped into a largely religious argument, and that's not one anyone ever wins. One has to have at least some common ground to start with, and in this case, he's too far out in left field.

Anonymous said...

Lessig and everyone else who want to change the copyright seem to have one thing in common: they do not rely on copyright licensing to put bread on the table.

Case in point, Mr. Lessig is a law professor at Stanford.

Glenn Z

Anonymous said...

He did look tired and beaten up in just two minutes of cross examination. Not a leg to stand on pathetic.

"I get it, I just don't care!

"I do a pretty good snoopy" - Colbert rocks and showed all the gravity this guy and his assumptions deserve"

Verdict:- Do Not collect $100 - Will not get on Ophra, No best seller list.

Don't give up your day job, Lessig

Anonymous said...

Lessig seems to have a past history of being cognitively rigid.

The flaw in his argument ("totally failed war" copyright laws should not exist because people are still stealing IP after 10 years) is a classic "all or nothing" distortion.

Crime has always existed in civilization - is that a good reason to abolish laws?

In his "free sharing economy" I suggest Lessig and the University provide free education to everyone - covering their own expenses for this "free sharing economy" .

Anonymous said...

I think a bunch of the posters here (including John) don't understand Colbert very well. While he was clearly needling Lessig, he also invited people to "steal" his own program and remix it.

Colbert has more than a little sympathy for the remix generation. He has found an interesting way to encourage these people in ways that promote his show. In some ways, it's like what the Grateful Dead did when they allowed bootleggers to record and distribute all their shows.

I think that MarkW has it at least partially right, in that this is a freight train headed our way. The part he does not get to is that it's up to us (like it is with Colbert) to find ways to use the new reality to make a living.

Anonymous said...

On a philosophical level I agree with one of Lessig's ideas that if you remove copyright laws you will get much more creativity and each createur would have to work harder to produce more interesting work thus we constantly evolve and don't rely on the same daft stock imagery we see constantly used. This would be good for the viewer/user and the artwork.

But in the real world that's just not how it works.

You can't produce an adcampaign only to have your competitor use the same imagery but the image is flipped (or whatever).

If we loose copyright we also use a way of controlling our moral rights, which in some ways is worse.

To agrv: I think of Lessig as more of a libertarian, not a communist (or am I missing your point)

argv said...

I alluded to communism because (politics aside), the philosophy is that when no one owns anything, and everything everyone produces is shared equally among their peers, then people would enticed to do as you just said: more creativity would happen, etc... but, in reality, that doesn't happen. There's an old phrase about communism that says, "you pretend to work and the government presends to pay you."

Because Lessig knows nothing of economics, I forgive him for completely dismisses the reason why copyright law (and other sorts of laws that affect economic conditions) was drafted in the first place.

But what I can't forgive him for is his legal "mangling" of his own argument. he claims that 70% of teenagers are infringing on copyrights by using prior works to create news ones. Well, *that* isn't infringement -- Fair Use permits that very sort of thing. It's only the re-publication of those works in a manner that would otherwise require licensing that copyright law enforces. The details of that are irrelevant here because teenagers aren't doing any of it.

The major economic engine (not that only one, though) that copyright law allows to hum is the "corporate" use of copyrighted works, both commercial and editorial. It's the fact that these guys infringe that's bad, and despite Lessig's argument that people "add value" when they copy someone's work and add to it, most corporpate uses of works add nothing whatsoever. It's just a use of the work in its current, unaltered form. This, whether it's news, entertainment, sports, or advertising.

Which brings me back to communism and Lessig -- I'm NOT claiming he's a communism, but I do believe he's drawing deriving what he feels are solutions to universal problems all because he thinks that one solution happens to solve one particular problem. 70% of teenagers "remixing" content they find online isn't a problem, nor is it even against copyright law. It either shows that Lessig has fallen into the intellectual ocean, or his use of these irrelevant points is his ammunition to speak to an uninformed audience to further a different objective.

Frankly, I think it's the latter.

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Anonymous said...

Check out Lessig's end-of-Remix-book-tour interview. Talks about Colbert and what's next for his research.

Trailer: tinyurl.com/b3k62q
Full length: tinyurl.com/co4ktr

Anonymous said...


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