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Copyright Expert Lessig Copies Himself

Editor's Rating: star rating

In the author's new book, he fails to move much beyond his critiques of over-protection, and his ideas on copyright reform come too late

Remix: Making Art and Commerce

Thrive in the Hybrid Economy

By Lawrence Lessig

Penguin Press; 327 pp; $25.95

In February of 2007, Stephanie Lenz videotaped her 18-month-old son dancing on the kitchen floor for 29 seconds as the Prince song Let's Go Crazy played on a radio in the background. Lenz wanted her parents to see the hilarious clip, so she uploaded it to YouTube (GOOG) and e-mailed them the link. No big deal, right? Wrong! Universal Music Group, which owns or administers the copyright of the song, fired off a letter to the video-sharing site, demanding that it remove the unauthorized performance of Prince's music. (It did.) What's more, Universal's lawyers let Lenz know that she had engaged in willful copyright infringement—and could be risking a fine of $150,000.

To Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, the Lenz imbroglio is just one example of how America's increasing obsession with copyright protection has come at a high cost, curtailing creativity, innovation, and even some of our most basic freedoms. Ever since Napster made it easy to illegally download music, the media industry has waged a copyright war in an effort to protect its property. But that effort has been an utter failure, argues Lessig in his new book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Kids continue to use the Net to pilfer music, while the struggle wastes the legal system's finite resources. "It is time we call a truce, and figure out a better way," writes Lessig. "And a better way means redefining the system of that ordinary, normal behavior is not called criminal."

It's nice to see Lessig trying to move beyond the mere critique of the system that he offered in previous works. He first stepped down this path a few years ago by helping to found the Creative Commons, a copyright-licensing system that has since become a powerful alternative to America's traditional copyright regime. And for those who have never read Lessig, the new book is a good primer on the shifting debates over copyright in the Digital Age. But Remix is Lessig's weakest effort to date, a derivative essay that rehashes a lot of his older work. Like Martin Scorsese doing another mobster flick, Lessig seems uninspired, groping for a fresh take on familiar themes. Most annoying, he devotes only the last 35 pages of the book to his reform plan, and some of those ideas are not even that new.

Remix, though, fires one last shot in the war. In the book's first section, Lessig argues that the copyright wars have created a false impression: that there can be only one victor—either Hollywood or the Internet. Instead, he says, the consumption-driven culture of the media and the interactive culture of the Net can prosperously co-exist. Problem is, most people who have spent time on the Net already understands and agrees with this point.

The middle section of Remix is its most valuable part. Much of the author's power stems from his ability to combine legal theory and geek cred with economics. Here again, he draws on all three to draw attention to the rise of an Internet-fueled "hybrid" economy that mixes elements of "commercial economies," where money rules, and "sharing economies," where people give away stuff for social or personal reasons. Although this section borrows heavily from the work of others, including The Long Tail by Chris Anderson and Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, Lessig breaks new ground.

Using examples of hybrid economies such as the free-software movement, photo-sharing site Flickr, and other social media, Lessig explains how giving things away can make money and why some hybrids succeed and others fail. The trick, he says, is to figure out the proper balance between the two models. Every successful hybrid must "frame its work, and the profit it expects, in a way that doesn't frighten away the community" of users that made it successful in the first place, he writes.

To help hybrids flourish, Lessig offers five reasonable reforms in Remix's final section, including requiring copyright holders to renew their rights after an initial period of protection. But this brief chapter feels tacked on. It would have been better had Lessig used Remix to tell the story of his Creative Commons. That system, which allows creators to surrender some rights to public use while retaining others through a variety of licensing and contract provisions, may ultimately be Lessig's most important legacy.

Ante is the computers department editor for BusinessWeek.

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