Lawyer and professor of law at the Californian University of Stanford, Lawrence Lessig is an alternative copyright theorist, a current issue due to the legal battles caused by the massification of digital copies and the distribution of music and other content over the internet. Lessig assures that culture must be freed from the excesses of the current model and from a concept of content protection that does not fit with the digital society. It is a vision that does not imply any apology for piracy and that Lessig argues in detail in works such as For a Free Culture, his last book to date.
-Can you summarize your criticism of the current copyright model?
It does not respond to the possibilities that the digital age opens up. The distribution of content is now much cheaper and easier and the logical thing is that technology is used to get culture to people. However, the industry wants to exercise full control over the content. Private copying, the right to share things and to create by reusing existing materials, as has always been done, is discussed. And the duration of intellectual property is being extended – in the US we have 11 extensions in 40 years – to prevent the materials from being in the public domain.
-Do you think your defense of a new type of copyright is correctly interpreted?
No. Many people present us as advocates of piracy and advocates of artists not charging royalties. This is wrong. We don’t want to abolish copyright or leave artists unpaid. When Bill Gates said that we were communists who wanted to destroy private property, he launched a malicious idiocy. The digital age needs a new kind of copyright. And we must better explain how it should be.
-In his books he relates shocking examples. The American Society of Composers asking Girl Scouts to pay for the songs girls sing in their camps; the endless legal battle of a writer to publish a novel about the slaves of Gone with the Wind …
These are cases that reflect the extremes to which we are reaching, and there is another that is very illustrative. It is that of a college student who developed a system for indexing and searching files. There was no music or anything like that. The authorities noticed him and demanded 15 million dollars from him for not respecting copyright. In the end they asked him how much money he had, he said that it was $ 12,000 and they fined him for that amount. And he agreed to pay the $ 12,000 because defending himself in court would have cost him much more.
-What do you think about current P2P file-sharing technologies?
The technology is fantastic to me, and I support the right of innovators to continue creating tools like these. What I do not support are the copyright violations that are made with its use.
-In the past the industry has already tried to reject new technologies and ended up accepting them, for example the video recorder. Will the same happen now?
It is likely, but the problem is that we do not have time. We have five years. If we do not succeed, the new control technologies that are being prepared and increasingly restrictive legislation will exert a power that has never been seen over culture.
– Piracy and copyright always appear mixed in the same bag. Should it be like this?
No. The industry insists on linking them because that benefits it and I recognize that we have not been able to explain ourselves. We are against piracy. It is illegal and immoral to make money by selling something that others have done. That said, I add that the industry often misuses the label “piracy”.
-Constantly there are figures for music downloads on the internet that are related to fewer record sales …
According to data from the North American Record Label Association, CD sales have fallen from 882 million to 803 million units – 8.9% – while annual Internet downloads reach 2.1 billion CDs. If each download were a lost sale, the industry would have suffered a 100% drop in sales, not 8.9%. Downloads are not necessarily negative, as they help spread the music. And, in addition, there is the success of online systems for selling paid songs, such as Apple’s iTunes, something that should reassure many.
-What would your basic laws on intellectual property be?
To simplify, let’s say less years of copyright, so that the contents become public domain within a reasonable period of time; we can think of 14 years, plus 14 extendable. In addition, the right to private copying and the right of users to reuse content for non-commercial purposes: it is necessary to teach children to mix images and sounds in schools without this turning them into criminals. And it is necessary to guarantee the access of the artists to generic materials that they use to create new content.
-In many European countries, including Spain, a fee is charged on virgin media for possible private copies and, in parallel, the industry deploys anti-copy systems. What do you think about that?
Has no sense. It is curious, because Europe legislates more than the United States and sometimes falls into flagrant contradictions like this one: charging a fee to allow copying and then installing anti-copy systems. This is having the worst of both worlds.
-Some European entities say that users do not have the right to private copying, while user organizations defend it. And there have been very contradictory judgments in France and other countries …
Confusion and uncertainty exist everywhere. Bear in mind that in the US we have laws that support analog private copying, but there is no law on digital copying. And each one can interpret this emptiness as they want. This shows the lack of legal adaptation that is taking place. I am a supporter of private copying. Whoever records a television program at home is not a pirate. And in the same way we have the right to make a copy of a record to be able to listen to it in the car.
-You are the creator of Creative Commons licenses, which pose a new type of intellectual property. How are they being applied?
They are widely used in cultural products – songs, books, films, computer programs? -, and basically allow the free reuse, distribution and copying of the material when there are no commercial purposes, support the creative and social use of the contents and safeguard the rights of Author. Top musicians such as David Byrne, Beasty Boys and Gilberto Gil, Brazil’s Minister of Culture, are some of the artists who support them. And there are the Creative Commons Deve loping Nations License in which, if the author wants, certain products enjoy the typical copyright in rich countries, but can be freely copied and distributed in poor countries.
-In the subject of patents, there are countries that are also asking for a change of scenery …
The question we must ask ourselves is whether the current system helps or hinders innovation and development. I believe that some aspects of the current patent model are an obstacle and that they must be changed. There is the issue of AIDS medicines. There is great pressure from countries like Brazil, South Africa and others to have cheaper medicines. And those who have a monopoly on drugs do not know what to do, because if they sell cheaper to poor countries, immediately the rich countries will complain about the price they apply to them. One possible solution is to release knowledge.
-Behind all these approaches appears a new way of managing information and knowledge. What label do you put on it?
Culture must be free and to develop it needs a favorable and never restrictive structure. I use the word commons, which I don’t know how it can be translated in Spanish. It is not communism. It is something social, community, although respecting the work of the creator, the researcher or the companies. One thing does not exclude the other.
-They are looking for a new model, but there is a collision with the industry and with some laws …
There is. People must realize that it is a major problem. Politicians must be required to legislate in favor of society. It is also good that people use technologies and see what they can do and what the law prevents them. It is the best system to realize that many current limitations do not make sense and are reactionary.