Copyright reform warrior Lessig beams down to Denver for ‘wireside chat’

DENVER– Copyright reform advocates gathered at Denver Open Media Thursday night to participate in a global “wireside chat” lead in live streaming video by Harvard law professor and longtime copyright critic Lawrence Lessig. People tweeted cyberspace questions and comments from simultaneous meatspace gatherings held in all corners of the world. A panel of experts from the University of Denver and the local art world elaborated on their views after Lessig signed off and vanished from the projected web.

Lawrence Lessig wireside chatting at DOM
Lawrence Lessig wireside chatting at DOM

Panel speakers after the show included a host of University of Denver Professors as well as Jamie Laurie (“Jonny5”) founding member of the band Flobots.

“Everyone is kind of stuck in this [legal] gray area,” Laurie said, explaining that he is currently violating strictly interpreted copyright laws in his own work, where he raps over street performer music he records himself. He doesn’t know the names of some of the performers or artists he effectively collaborates with.

The message of the night was not new but its relevance grows with each passing hour: Existing copyright law is anachronistic. It seeks to limit the flow of information and shovel profits to the few while all manner of information speeds into our laptops and iPhones and the ranks of connected artists and thinkers and scientists looking to share their work product expand at exponential new rates.

Lessig talked about changing copyright law to make it more sensible and compatible to contemporary creativity and information consumption. But obstacles to change are high, he said. Disney, for example, is not going to stop raining down money on Congress to protect its profits anytime soon. The consensus at Denver Open Media seemed to be that the best way to change copyright law was in effect to do an end-run around it by advancing the alternative Creative Commons code, where artists elect to give away their product for predetermined uses. Lessig was a founder of the Creative Commons movement.

Slapping a “CC” license on your music, photo or video allows web users everywhere to take it and run with it, spread it around and make new things from it. A CC license feeds creativity. A regular copyright license restricts use, preventing sharing and even landing people who use copyrighted material in jail or on the hook for outsized fines and legal bills.

Wireside Chat panelists: Tony Shawcross, Jonny5, Derigan Silver, Chris Coleman, Laleh Mehran
'Wireside' panelists: Tony Shawcross, Jonny5, Derigan Silver, Chris Coleman, Laleh Mehran

Making his point, Lessig pointed to the greater body of Walt Disney’s work to illustrate his point. “Disney’s best works were all works that built on the past.”

He attacked Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act that allows for extensions to copyright terms. Lessig said 50 years would be a fair term for copyrights to function if there were a further obligation by rights holders to update those rights every five years. Failure to do so would allow those properties to become part of the public domain.

“I believe we need to have a system of copyright, but it needs to be narrowed to places where it can do some good. It does no good when it tries to regulate amateur creativity…We should free that kind of creativity from copyright control,” Lessig said.

Laurie said it was important to get the idea of creative commons licensing out so that creative expression can be sustained. He said that more effort would be needed to promote the ideas noting that his band was able to go from birth to major label before anyone had asked them, ‘Hey why don’t you consider creative commons.’

“That wasn’t part of the culture of the music scene. No one approached us. No one tried to recruit us. There was no one doing community organizing around the topic.”

One of the panelists Laleh Mehran , an associate professor at the University of Denver’s Electronic Media Arts and Design department, told the Colorado Independent that, although she fully agreed with the move to make her works and others free to use, she though some restrictions should apply.

“As long as it is not some massive corporation that’s taking the work and making millions of dollars– or if there is a moral question [concerning how it is being used], I am not necessarily okay with it,” she said.

The “chat” could not have been held at a more well-suited location. Denver Open Media’s facilities are designed, according to Executive Director Tony Shawcross, to ensure that those “on the other side of the digital divide have access to any resources they need to participate in social conversations…”

Denver Open Media, one of several Open Media Foundation projects, provides studio space, video, audio, and computer equipment to members to use for free. The only stipulation is that work produced through Denver Open Media carry a Creative Commons license.

“The vast majority of the conversations that happen through the media happens in the commercial media system… It’s a system used to develop audiences for advertisements. It is not there to reflect social values or to have any civic interest. So we feel there are a lot of messages that get left out of that commercial media conversation. We want public access stations to provide space where there are messages that the commercial media system would never really carry.”

Lessig made a similar point earlier in the night. He said that in some cases the simple maximization of wealth must be balanced by another commodity: cultural development.

“In a world of digital network media, copyright policy isn’t just about how to incentivize the product line of a certain type of artistic commodity. It’s about what level of control we are going to permit to be exercised over our social realities… If we are only focused on how to maximize the supply of one [kind of product], I think we risk suppressing this different and richer and even in some ways maybe even more important one,” he said.

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