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Originally published on Monday, May 10, 2004 in The Miami Herald

Author analyzes subversion of copyright law.
Many big media companies have extended their copyright 'protection' almost indefinitely for their own benefit -- not the creator's or the public's.

Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. Lawrence Lessig. Penguin Press. 348 pages. (also available as a free download in a variety of formats at www.free-culture.com)

After a recent review of a book on the history of music recording and playback technology, e-mail from a London correspondent excoriated me for not respecting the rights of creators. I responded that throughout the history of popular culture, the status quo resisted many technological changes that were ultimately -- and profitably -- adopted.

In the course of my research, I also discovered that industries and companies now among the most outspoken opponents of liberalized access and distribution of intellectual property were established under very interesting circumstances.

I'd encountered an article in Wired magazine by Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford Law School, in which he excerpted from his new book. He wrote: 'The Hollywood film industry was built by fleeing pirates. Creators and directors migrated from the East Coast to California in the early 20th century in part to escape controls that film patents granted the inventor Thomas Edison. These controls were exercised through the Motion Pictures Patents Company, a monopoly `trust' based on Edison's creative property and formed to vigorously protect his patent rights.

'California was remote enough from Edison's reach that filmmakers like Fox and Paramount could move there and, without fear of the law, pirate his inventions. Hollywood grew quickly, and enforcement of federal law eventually spread West. But because patents granted their holders a truly `limited' monopoly of just 17 years (at that time), the patents had expired by the time enough federal marshals appeared. A new industry had been founded, in part from the piracy of Edison's creative property.''

In his book, Lessig also points out that Walt Disney's first big success, the animated short, Steamboat Willie, was an early example of ''rip, mix and burn'' -- the technique used by today's downloaders, mixers and other digital ''outlaws.'' That Mickey Mouse cartoon was a parody derived from Buster Keaton's 1928 hit film, Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Indeed, as Lessig also points out, many so-called ''Disney'' properties are based on works by the Brothers Grimm and others: Jungle Book, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Cinderella, Robin Hood and more. These stories did not write themselves or appear from thin air. Some were in the public domain or out-of-copyright. But that was in the day when copyrights had finite terms. Lessig writes that many big media companies -- Disney among them -- have subverted a fundamental aspect of copyright laws by extending their ''protection'' almost indefinitely for their own benefit -- not the creator's or the public's.
Lessig writes about the music business (naturally), as well as architecture, copy machines, software, drugs and other aspects of what's been placed under the umbrella of ``intellectual property.''

It's an interesting and provocative book, and one that ought to be read by artists and others who make their living creating, buying and selling pieces of culture. The history and context of the commercial exploitation of creative work might help readers understand its future, too.

Lessig's approach toward copyright is further evidenced in the fact that this book is available as a free download. He's also encouraged the creation of some very creative derivative works. Go to http://www.free-culture.com for more information.

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