This weeks readings centered on copyright laws and its implications for digital history, and indeed, for our society at large. Although my reaction was different than David’s, the work I also kept coming back to was Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture. Lessig’s work aims to both warn and chronicle how the American creative culture is being stifled mostly by a combination of increased intellectual property/ copyright law and greedy media ownership. Free Culture’s story is one of both declension (from a free culture), and a somewhat harrowing prophecy of the changes needed to overt a nuclear winter for American intellectual creativity; indeed one of the central points of his work is the claim that the evil machinations of media conglomerates (and the governments willingness to cater to their interests) our government, are not-so-subtly destroying something “fundamental about who we always have been” (Lessig, 13). Importantly, Lessig also notes that his narrative is written in a manner “that is not the usual method of an academic, ” relying on a “collection of stories” to convey his arguments, and I wonder if that is the reason part of me greets this work with some skepticism (Lessig, 13).
It’s not that Lessig fails to convey how we have arrived at this juncture, but in order to believe his argument, I think that one has to proceed from the notion that America’s imaginative freedom is largely jammed in neutral. Before anyone accuses me of implicitly trumpeting the triumphalist counter notion that America maintains an imaginative freedom and genius that is unmatched, that is not what I am putting forward. Rather, I am simply suggesting that Lessig has not done enough to convince me that we are in the dire situation he posits, and on that basis, I cannot wholeheartedly embrace all of his arguments. For example, Lessig suggests that past innovators might not have come to fruition (Walt Disney being just one example) had they had to contend with modern copyright laws, and then cites several examples of instances where intellectual property copyrights has greatly impeded or even canceled projects. The problem is that (at least as I read it) it seems Lessig wants this to be taken as irrefutable evidence of an American creative culture that is increasingly bereft of an actual creative culture. Maybe I am splitting hairs, but are tougher copyright and intellectual property laws an indication of the stifling of America’s creative culture—at least to the degree that Lessig believes? I do not doubt that the entire copyright and intellectual property process has, and will continue to destroy projects that are worthwhile, and I do believe that Lessig is right to chart these developments and then forecast the future. However, even if the power possessed by media conglomerates (for lack of a better term) is troubling, to suggest that it is both indicative of, and a cause of, the destruction of intellectual creativity seems somewhat overblown. Looking back over the past decade, perhaps a more measured conclusion might be that intellectual property and copyright have oftentimes acted as something of a brake on creativity, at points actively hindering the overall process, but Lessig is intent on swinging for the fences when a single might have gotten the job done as effectively.
One quick side note to this weeks post: I was wondering if anyone had caught the debate between Dan and Zach Schragg on Press Forward? The debate touches on a number of issues that have been at the core of several of our classes, most notably the evaluation of scholarship, and the persistent resistance to some aspects of the inroads of digital history. As a first time author currently trying to publish a paper, I did receive fairly prompt and extensive (if at some points contradictory and mildly unhelpful feedback) from the editor of a fairly well known American history journal. Undoubtedly, whatever the end product of this process is (and hopefully there is one), it will have been a worthwhile experience. I wonder if this points toward a significant question for Press Forward: what will the impact be on first time authors?