The frightening might of copyright

Copyright in the USA has devolved from a device protecting diligent authors from greedy, anti-societal middlemen, to a device ‘protecting’ these very same middlemen from the citizens. This may not be apparent yet to many people, because American law doesn’t mention these middlemen yet — certainly not as beneficiaries, as the most recent Dutch copyright law does.

Lawrence Lessig’s book Free Culture, published March 2004 by Penguin, describes the devastating consequences this development may have on the growth and proliferation of American culture. I don’t agree with many of his conclusions, and oppose his adoption of the propaganda language used by the evilest of middlemen (‘property right’ for ‘copy right’, ‘theft’ for ‘infringement’ et cetera), be they congressperson, publisher or lawyer, but he means well.

Where the book really shines is in the long list of shocking examples of where copyright has stifled free speech and prohibited many, many things that were perfectly legal (and ethical!) before. From the inventor of FM radio, who killed himself when the middlemen refused to license his patents, to the small children who got ‘prosecuted’ (the term used by the middlemen) for not licensing MP3s, the book perfectly illustrates how a weapon against publishers has fallen into exactly the wrong hands.

When it comes to copyrights in the US, I tend to agree more with Richard Stallman, who better differentiates between the values at stake. When file-sharing is deemed illegal, that is not wrong because of some obtuse, three-chapter long series of intermixed arguments of what’s good for innovation and of what property really means. It is simply wrong because sharing is a right value. The law should recognise that as soon as sharing becomes an endangered species.

So when Lessig proposes the Public Domain Enhancement Act, he does something right: he helps preserve culture. As webmaster of a website about abandoned text adventures I appreciate that very much, because many of these games can no longer be legally owned. However, he skips the many other problems involved by giving the likes of Sony and Disney the power they’ve currently got.

In the end, though, I cannot blame Lessig for attacking only the problem that is closest to him. His essay is an intelligent, yet passionate one, that should be read by anyone who is concerned about where this world is heading. The consequences of a dictatorial copyright regime influence the entire world, and are far-reaching: from news channels no longer reporting the truth to small children turning criminal for doing good.

Free Culture can be bought at any bookstore worth its salt, and is downloadable in many, many formats (from spoken to written text, and possibly in several languages) from its companion website at

Edit: when I wrote this review I used to publish my book reviews on third party websites. Later, I decided I would keep all my reviews under my own control. In August 2006 I added this entry to the books and review categories, and removed the phrase “(book review)” from the title.

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