SHARECROPPING McCARTHYISM

Sharecrop_intro_imgWho is the silliest digital utopian in Silicon Valley?

Vint Cerf, with his life-on-Mars fetish, might qualify. So might the Google guys with their neo-colonial desire to import wi-fi & $100 laptops to Africa. But in my mind, the silliest of all the digital sillies might be Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Stanford University, and the most militant ideologue of the "remix" culture.

What makes Lessig so undeniably silly is his (mis)use of language and his plundering of inappropriate metaphors from American history. Here he is, in an interview today on the AlwaysOn Network, talking about what he considers to be the most profound injustice of our age:

"We now have technology that begs our kids to take culture and do stuff with it—not just consume it or hoard it but actually transform it. All sorts of people are beginning to recognize the extraordinary creativity around this form of cultural production, but in the context of existing copyright law, that remix is either legally problematic (to put it politely) or plainly illegal (from the standpoint of the content industry). People are creating extraordinary stuff and posting it on the Internet, only to have the content industry threaten major retaliation."

What Lessig is describing the fashion today for amateur digital artists to take original songs or movies and impose their own signature on the original work. It's a sort of digital graffiti, not much different from scribbling on walls. That's what the lawyerly Lessig calls "extraordinary creativity". It is what the legal scholar considers superior to consuming or hoarding culture (ie: watching movies passively without wanting to film over them).

It gets even sillier. Lessig calls on technology companies to take on big media over copyright law:

"The hard question is whether companies that stand to benefit from that type of market—companies like Apple—will be creative enough or bold enough in this atmosphere of IP McCarthyism to take a lead in trying to create these markets."

The atmosphere of IP McCarthyism? Can Lessig really be serious? What is McCarthyist about media companies defending their own intellectual property? What has Joe McCarthy got to do with the responsibility of media companies to extract maximum value out of their intellectual property? 

It gets even sillier when Lessig turns to the unjust lot of the remix artist. Here he sounds like a  mashup of Bukharin and Proudhon:

"Lesser-known artists have already identified the Internet as a way to distribute content. In that sense, the market will take care of itself for those artists. The big guys have signaled their desire to embrace the new technologies, but I don't think any of them really have. Someone like David Bowie—who has all the money in the world—should be out there saying, 'Fine, take my content. Here are five songs: Remix my content, and you own the remix.' But instead he runs these mashup contests, where he encourages people to remix his songs and then awards the winner a car or something similar. Cool, right? Wrong: If you read the license for those mashups, you'll see that David Bowie owns not only his own music but all of the creativity produced by the thousands of people who mashed up his work. This, to me, is a sharecropper vision of creativity."

A SHARECROPPER VISION OF CREATIVITY

Yes, Lessig actually said this. He really did compare the tribulations of today's digital mashup artist to the lot of the freed slave in Reconstruction America.  Wow, is that silly!  It beats life-on-Mars and $100 laptops in Africa. And it crowns Lawrence Lessig as the silliest digital utopian in all of Silicon Valley.