Monday, February 9, 2004 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Copy Left (continued) OR The Free Culture Movement

The story so far: On January 25, the NYT Magazine ran an article by Robert Boynton called the "Tyranny of Copyright?" which lauded Professor Lawrence Lessig of Stanford and various other members of the "free culture movement," aka "the Copy Left."

Now, Professor Lessig has blogged two "important quibbles" about what he regards as "an otherwise great article":
• The division of credit; Lessig thinks the article makes too much of his former home, Harvard, and not enough of contributors from other places.
• Lessig characterizes as "silly" the article's use of the term "Copy Left" because "the movement" is not of "the [political] Left." Nor does this capture the meaning of "copyleft," the term coined by the Free Software Foundation.

Lessig also notes that PFF "launched an attack on 'the movement.'" Bill Adkinson of PFF did make what we would prefer to call a comment, but let that bide, since Lessig does not address its substance.

Today's Episode: Those on the other side of the Free Culture Movement care little who gets the credit or blame for it, but the question of its political orientation is a fascinating one.

The FCM does not think that production and consumption of intellectual creations should be organized by property rights and markets. Instead, it favors a mechanism of production based on the open source software movement, in which software is made available at no charge, and is also freely modifiable by the world at large. When asked how the producers of intellectual products would be funded, the FCM talks of patronage, government subsidy, taxes on hardware with subsequent distribution to creators, provision of services related to the creations, and advertising.

Realistically, since so much of the FCM is academically-based, a further answer is redistribution from tuition-paying parents and university endowment funds. (I can't resist noting that one of the most valuable pieces of property one can have in the contemporary U.S. is a tenured chair at a major university. It is worth a couple of hundred grand per year, most of the teaching is off-loaded onto untenured peons, you can work on what you want, and you won't be fired, except, perhaps, for supporting a political conservative.)

In the end, because the other methods are insufficient, under an FCM regime most funding would have to come from government support, either through subsidy or through taxes or fees that are then redistributed according to government-mandated formula.

In my view, this combination of hostility to property rights and markets plus faith in government management is the defining characteristic of the political left. But I do not really care about the label. Whatever you call it, it is a bad idea.

Nor was the NYT article "great." It was a piece of vapid incoherence. It threw into one big stew issues of economic support for creativity, freedom of political debate, the interactive nature of artistic endeavor, and issues of "fair use." It accepted the exaggerations and obfuscations of the FCM as gospel. It cited Linux as a general model, despite the reality that Linux is the product of its own specific context, and is not a model for much of anything, including software. It failed to distinguish, except in one throw-away phrase, between the many different types of creative products - music, movies, software, games, books, magazines, newspapers, and academic journals -- all of which present distinct issues.

There is no doubt that the FCM is raising some real issues, and pointing to some real problems. But, IMHO, the fact that it is in fact politically motivated detracts from its ability to develop solutions to those problems. And yes, I think it is indeed of "the Left," in the sense that it is opposed to property rights and markets, and would ultimately, in effect if not by intent, undermine the human freedom and economic progress that depends on these institutions.

posted by James DeLong @ 12:25 PM | General