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Internet Marketing and Web Development in Higher Education and other tidbits…

Book Review: Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig

24 Sep 2009

written by Michael Fienen

Book Review: Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you might have caught on that I recently got into the book Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity Book Review: Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig by Lawrence Lessig, one of many that I’ve been meaning to check off my least of to-reads.  Let me spoil the review by telling you not to bother reading the review, just go get the book and read it.  It’s just that good.  If you have any interest at all in copyrights, law, and the freedom to develop creative content, then you’re going to get a ton out of this book.  It should be required reading for every member of Congress.

[UPDATE: 09.09.24 11:28AM] Thanks to Andrew in the comments for pointing out something I missed: If you would like to read this book, Lessig has made it available, for free, under a Creative Commons license for anyone to download at the book’s web site.

Lessig is, to put it lightly, a talented academic and lawyer.  If you’ve never heard of him, I can’t recommend enough that you go listen his TED lecture on user generated content.  Oh, he’s also on the board of directors for a little system called Creative Commons, you might have heard of it.  He picks up his legal understanding of copyright law and swings it around deftly like Babe Ruth and his famous hickory.  He even shows substantial humility by writing of his own big failure on the topic before the Supreme Court.  The best part is that he’s not writing from the perspective of a politico pushing an agenda, he’s writing as a lawyer and academic evaluating the law and the damage it has on a society.

As educational professionals, we tend to ride very close to the edge when it comes to the development of web and creative content, especially in terms of fair use, and the issue is increasingly confused by professors who come to us asking us to do things with content or post things they have done with content that is in a substantially gray area of the law.  Education leans heavily on the idea of fair use, but increasingly the freedom of that idea is being challenged and eroded at every opportunity by those with the power and money to do so.  Thus, the problem isn’t that there is a gray area, it’s that the gray area itself is increasingly a realm of lawyers, where you either have to hire one to assure your rights, or one to defend them.  In either case you end up with costs and work that often times outweigh the value of the content being created.

But, I don’t want to spiral into my personal opinion on the matter.  Obviously, I agree with Lessig at pretty much every turn.  But, the man is smart and precise.  The book dives into the history of copyright law and it’s evolution into the monster that is now fighting a messy battle with internet technologies on our doorsteps.  All of this is done with the lay person in mind, and even without an understanding of the law, anyone could pick this book up and understand the threat being posed to our creative culture.  Indeed, by the end, you’re likely to find yourself sitting in your chair thinking, “How can Congress be so dumb?”  Well, as it turns out, it’s quite easy, and he explains why.  By the end, you don’t feel even remotely like you were just lectured ad nauseam by a lawyer.  He lays out scenarios, explains how common and primary law has handled it in the past, and why the drastic change in honoring that past is costing us a great deal in the long run.

This is not a book about education or law, this is a book designed to educate.  Because of our proximity to such issues, I think it is critical that we all educate ourselves on the changes that are taking place, and the impact it is going to have on us as we move forward and try to support schools, professors, and students in their pursuit of an open learning environment.  I’m not sure that there is any place better to start that education than with Free Culture.  Despite being five years old now (a long time when dealing with anything related to technology), the book is still extremely pertinent to our world today, and indeed, there are a number of times that I caught myself thinking about some of the newer instances of intellectual property challenges taking place today in the context Lessig provides.

An absolute must read for everyone, period.

Have you read Free Culture?  Share your thoughts with everyone below.

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About the author

Michael Fienen

For six years, Michael served as the Director of Web Marketing at Pittsburg State University. Currently, he is the Senior Interactive Developer at Aquent and is also CTO for the interactive map provider nuCloud. When it comes to web communication, he focuses very heavily on interpersonal communication components of websites, as well as content considerations that must be taken into account when building usable sites.  He is an active supporter of the dotCMS community, accessibility advocate, consultant, internationally featured speaker on web issues, and general purpose geek who wears many hats.

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  • http://www.nearandfarcomic.com Rachel

    I really liked it, not only for the content but for Lessig’s clear writing style. So many books concerned with law of whatever nature get bogged down in legal terminology and wrapped around their own rhetoric. Lessig provides easy-to-follow examples and stays away from the heavy language that so often puts me to sleep when trying to understand an issue of law.

    I also like that he goes through a lot of the history of the issue and similar issues. Rather than just railing against his opponents, he builds a solid case for reform of copyright law. It’s an excellent book whether you want to know more about his particular issue or even if you’re just interested in internet content.

  • http://highered.prblogs.org/ Andrew Careaga

    Lessig’s sharp, and he practices what he preaches. I snagged this book when it first came out 4 or 5 years ago. I got it for free, too, as a PDF. It’s still available via Creative Commons license at http://www.free-culture.cc/freecontent/.

    If anyone doesn’t believe that history doesn’t repeat itself, then read this book about the evolution of copyright law over the years. The battle between the publishers of sheet music and the recording industry — some 100-plus years ago — is very interesting in light of how the recording industry is trying to muzzle the free distribution and copy of content. Now, the recording industry finds itself in the same situation as the sheet music publishers. It’s the same old story, really: those in power try desperately to hang on to it using the same means that got them there. But as Einstein said (I paraphrase), We can’t solve the current problems with the same mindset that got us into them.

    • http://www.fienen.com/ Michael Fienen

      Thanks for pointing out that you can get this book *legally* for free online. No one has an excuse to not read this book now, heh. I’ve updated the original post to include this information.

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