Home' Technology Review : June 2005 Contents 12
From the Editor Jason Pontin
FROM THE EDITOR
T , I saw a wonderful new Star Wars lm.
It wasn t made by George Lucas. I watched it for
free, having downloaded a digital le, and I broke
no copyright laws.
Star Wars: Revelations is a work of delirious fan-
dom: a 40-minute homage by amateur lmmakers that imagines
the inter val between Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
and the original Star Wars (now Episode IV: A New Hope).
Revelations is a "remix." It has all a Star Wars movie should:
packs of Imperial ghters, light-saber duels, a sobbing orchestral
score. It exists only because George Lucas waived many of the
traditional privileges of the copyright owner. So long as the lm-
makers did not sell the movie, they were allowed to freely reuse
most of the elements of the Star Wars universe.
Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Stanford University
and a famous proponent of more-relaxed copyright regulations,
praises this kind of free cultural reuse in an essay in
this month s package on intellectual property (see
"The People Own Ideas!" p. 46): "Many more people
(indeed, millions more) could make good lms.
New digital technologies could enable an explosion
of creative work."
Lessig goes further: he argues that remixing is
"how culture gets made." He writes, "It is almost impossible to
imagine a culture thriving if its people are not free to engage in
this kind of practice." But he also worries that new digital rights
management (DRM) technologies will make remixes like Reve-
lations dependent on the per mission of enlightened copyright
owners like Lucas---and, therefore, vanishingly rare.
Lessig s point is subtle. To see its force, one must understand
how far copyright regulation has expanded its scope. Addition-
ally, one must grasp a peculiar property of digital technologies.
U.S. copyright law has its origins in the technology of the
industrial era: it was originally designed to govern the operations
of printing presses. At rst, few cultural artifacts were regulated:
only books, maps, and charts. But copyright has grown to regu-
late more media, and after the Copyright Act of 1976, all tangible
creative work was automatically protected by copyright.
Still, before the digital era, copyright law did not a ect the or-
dinary uses of cultural artifacts. Reading or sharing a book was
not regulated, because no copy was made. But it is a property of
digital technologies that every use of a creative work produces a
copy---one that can be shared with millions of other people.
DRM technologies would, of course, ensure that copyright
owners are paid after years of near universal piracy. But they
would do more: allow the enforcement of the hitherto notional
1976 Copyright Act. In Lessig s elegant formulation, "When the
Internet gives copyright owners perfect control of their content,
then, since it s all automatically copyrighted, every use of it will
presumptively require permission."
Lessig is so appalled by this prospect that he advocates a
"free-culture movement" based on the free-software movement
that spawned Linux (see "How Linux Could Overthrow Micro-
soft," p. 64). Lessig salutes the Brazilian government s recent
support of free culture in its policies and procurements.
Richard Epstein, professor of law at the University of Chicago
and a noted champion of the power of markets, has serious objec-
tions to this line of reasoning. In a rejoinder to Lessig, "The Crea-
tors Own Ideas" (see p. 56), he rejects the "wholly illiberal" idea
that the government, whose proper role is to be a neutral arbiter,
should favor one mode of business over another. He also con-
tends that rather than thwarting creativity, proprietary systems
encourage it by providing nancial incentives.
Who is right? Surely, there is tr uth on both sides. Indeed,
both Lessig and Epstein acknowledge that there have always
been private and commonly owned ideas; both tacitly accept
that this is unlikely to change in the digital era. Both wish to see
a society that preserves reasonable and limited copyrights, while
simultaneously abjuring extreme limits on individuals ability
to "remix" culture. They want a copyright system appropriate
for the digital era.
But Lessig is too alarmist about DRM technologies: they will
not make remixing "impossible." More importantly, they would
allow what economists call "price discrimination," the ability of
sellers to price their products according to their use. This is a use-
ful innovation for digital economies: someone who wanted to
keep an e-book, for example, could be charged more than some-
one who only wanted to read it once.
A strong argument against Lessig is that Revelations was
remixed from cultural material held under one of the most prof-
itable traditional copyrights of all time. Proprietary systems don t
necessarily discourage innovation. Perhaps, rather, the reverse.
Am I wrong? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. ■
Digital rights management technologies
would guarantee that creators are rewarded
for their labors. They would allow sellers to
price their products according to their use.
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