Review: Remix – Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy

continues Professor Lessig’s discussion about the role of copyright in contemporary Western societies. This time he is focusing on how digital tools are used by children and adults alike to ‘remix’ pieces of culture. ‘Remixing’ involves taking images, music, speeches, and video (for example) and manipulating and arranging them to create entirely new cultural artifacts. You see this in homemade music videos, funny YouTube clips that use music to mock or praise politicians, and in blogs where people appropriate content from various locations to create the narrative of each posting. These amateur cultural artifacts are significant, both because they are creative expressions and because they leverage the weight of the symbols that are used in remixing to create the new cultural artifact. There is very real value in the referential elements of remix culture.

Lessig distinguishes between ‘Read Only’ (RO) and ‘Read Write’ (RW) cultures. RO culture has been the traditional realm of copyright – here intellectual property is carefully fenced off from the public commons, and individuals must ask permission to use it. RW culture, on the other hand, thrives off of sharing and creatively adapting (and re-adapting) media. Neither is necessarily better or worse than the other – they are each useful in particular domains. The problem, however, is that the laws governing RO culture are now preventing RW culture from legally thriving; digital technologies enable culture to be remixed, while the laws of the land outlaw creating remixed digital artifacts without first asking the permission of rights holders. Lessig associates the RO and RW ‘culture models’ with commercial and sharing economies, arguing that the advent of digital technologies and spaces can drive a wedge between commercial and sharing economies to create hybrid cultures and economies. He points to wikipedia, craigslist, YouTube, Slashdot, and as operating within a hybrid economy between RW and RO culture. This economy thrives off of individuals’ shared participation that can stimulate commercial profits. If a company upsets the balance that makes possible this hybridity – by paying people when payment would be an insult, or mishandling the sharing of people’s contributions – there is a risk that the financial success of a company that operates in the hybrid economy will be (financially) endangered.

The final solutions that are offered in the book (as you will read) follow naturally from the evolution of Lawrence’s thoughts. There really isn’t anything terribly surprising in the ultimate arguments surrounding how copyright laws ought to be altered, but what is different is the process by which we get to these arguments, and the meaning that is invested in the revision of copyright itself. Even if you’ve read his other work, there is value in examining Lessig’s attitude towards copyright reform through a slightly different lens. (If you haven’t read his previous work on copyright, then the conclusions will likely be incredibly powerful.) Ultimate, the question that he is asking in this book is ‘Do you think that we should continue the current copyright regime, which is criminalizing our children, or must we reform copyright so that it attends to how material is used, rather than whether or not it is copied?’

While there are various areas of the text where a reader might be disappointed (all it will take is a sufficient disagreement with core premises in the argument), I was unhappy to see the reliance on market mechanisms to (largely) hammer home the value of copyright reform. It doesn’t feel like Lessig is patronizing individuals who approach copyright from a dollars and cents position because he honestly believes in the market as a way of resolving/justifying solutions to the copyright dilemma. That said, I (continue to) wish that he’d adopt a more principled approach (e.g. on the basis of constitutional rightness or wrongness) and move away from the almighty market.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book if you are interested in issues of copyright, digital culture, new economies of business, or just want to laugh – while Lessig is a law professor, he has a gift for prose that would make most fiction writers and comedians envious.