Lessig on the limits of copyright

by John Q on January 25, 2005

This is my second report on last week’s Creative Commons conference. Lessig’s closing lecture was given in the Banco court of the Queensland Supreme Court (very plush – those lawyers don’t stint themselves) and was focused on traditional copyright issues . For Brisbane readers, an interesting titbit was that we haven’t seen OUTFOXED: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism because neither the Courier-Mail nor the national daily, the Australian, (both Murdoch-owned) would carry more than minimal ads for it. One of the costs of being in a one-newspaper town.

The main point of the lecture was a historical survey of the relentless extension of copyright, along with some discussions of a failed attempt to stop this in the case of Eldred vs Ashcroft. This case is notable for the fact that, as has happened before, the economics profession almost unanimously supported the losing side. As Lessig argued, copyright has been extended in length, scope and force to the extent that nowadays virtually everything is copyright, virtually forever.

Given that the defenders of unlimited copyright are interested mainly in protecting the merchandise markets for Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh, it’s often struck me that the sensible political resolution would be to concede defeat on this point, and seek to liberalise copyright for the 99 per cent of literary and artistic output that doesn’t have such huge monopoly value. One step in this direction, which Lessig discussed in his talk, is the case of Kahle v. Ashcroft which challenges changes to U.S. copyright law that have created a large class of “orphan works.” Orphan works are books, films, music, and other creative works which are out of print and no longer commercially available, but which are still regulated by copyright.

As I’ve said previously, in the end, I don’t think either law or technology will be decisive here. Rather it’s that the value of being freely connected to a huge network will exceed any benefits that can be obtained by gating off a particular part of the network and demanding payment for access. After all, the reason we have an open Internet is that it drove proprietary networks out of business or else absorbed them. Attempts to create “walled gardens” within the Internet haven’t been abandoned entirely, but they haven’t prospered either.

In this context, the most exciting feature of the conference was the launch of the Australian version of the Creative Commons licence. Widespread voluntary adoption of this kind of license will render measures like the extension of copyright irrelevant. In this context, the version of the license I particularly like the “Share Alike” version, which resembles the GNU public licence in requiring derivative users to adopt a similarly open licence. The greater the volume of material with this kind of licence that is out there, the greater the incentive to make use of it, even at the cost of forgoing commercial copyrights. Since most commercial culture depends ultimately on unpaid appropriation of older material, the effects will be cumulative (or, in today’s popular jargon, ‘viral’)[1].

As I mentioned, I was struck by the quality of Lessig’s presentation. He’s a great speaker and I was so struck by the elegance of his minimalist Powerpoint presentations that I got him to send them to me . He mostly uses a white typewriter font on black background with just one or a few words per slide. In the spirit of remix, I plan to see how much of this look and feel I can appropriate for my own work[2].

update By coincidence, just after I finished this the latest London Review of Books arrived, complete with a lengthy article on the monopolistic practices of the London booksellers in the 18th century, a point also addressed by Lessig. Unfortunately, the article itself is subscriber-only

fn1. This reminds me that my CC licence got lost in the shift from Movable Type. Another job to be done.

fn2. I’ve just decided to make the shift from Powerpoint to Keynote and Lessig mentioned he was doing the same. I’ll be trawling the web for examples.



Darren 01.25.05 at 12:11 pm

Intellectual copyright is protected by myth and economics. To illustrate this look at where the protection of intellectual copyright is breaking down: the downloading of copyrighted music from the internet. The myth that doing this is illegal or simply wrong doesn’t protect the property. As for economics: once the downloader has a computer the cost is neglible while the downloader’s profit; viz, the amount saved by not buying the downloaded material is the faux market price.

This may be a matter of life and death to some but this is only a small part of the story. Remember that the term intellectual property is fairly broad. The term encompasses patents: which – at the moment – are protected if not by myth certainly by economics.

Generally, patents have a cost burden with respect to conducting the processes that they describe. Secondly, the cost of policing is comparatively low since; current technology, as a consequence of technologies of scale, tends to centralise production. The centrallisation effect leaves a big fat target (think, Sudan pharmaceutical plant bombed by Clinton). Thus, the policing of this aspect of intellectual property is cost effective. What will happen when technology makes it possible to produce goods in a distributed, rather than centralised, manner? (See this link where scientists are bringing chemical manufacture to the desk top).

In answer to the question, perhaps we should turn to H de Soto’s ‘Mystery of Capital’.


Darren 01.25.05 at 12:20 pm


Read Intellectual property for intellectual copyright.


nnyhav 01.25.05 at 1:52 pm

Boynton in BookForum on copyright.

IP law, like numerous other regimes (e.g. securities regs), requires the cover of protecting the little guy (nudge nudge wink wink say no more squire!) … and any alternate network will be relentlessly attacked should it rise to a level that might compromise profits — it’s tactical because it’s transient, action provoking reaction — only the amorphous survive (since no clear target is presented).


Jimbo2K4 01.25.05 at 1:53 pm

Thanks for the really stupid politically biased analogy.


Jonathan Goldberg 01.25.05 at 2:17 pm


I was so struck by the elegance of his minimalist Powerpoint presentations..

is excuse enough for me to plug Edward Tufte’s wonderful * The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint, available from Tufte’s web site for USD7. And a bargain. Everyone who uses Powerpoint should be required by law to read it first.

Disclaimer: I have no connection to Tufte other than as a reader and cult member.

*although not as wonderful as The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, which you have all read, right?


dsquared 01.25.05 at 2:53 pm

Opposing view;

* Tufte is full of it on the subject of Powerpoint.

—-> Most presentations are bad, but they were just as awful before Powerpoint, so it can’t really be blamed on the software.

* Most of Tufte’s essay is aimed at the easy target of “AutoContent Wizards”, which are used by more or less nobody.


* Tufte believes there is something intrinsically wrong about bulleted lists.

—>There isn’t.

  • Bulleted lists are a perfectly good way of presenting a number of points.
  • A well organised set of points looks good as a bulleted list
  • A poorly organised set of points will not look good whatever you do to it

—>There is nothing wrong with hierarchical lists either

  • One great use of Powerpoint is to help you precis difficult arguments
  • I use Powerpoint all the time to help me understand philosophers like Gerry Cohen who always have minor premises leading to major ones
  • Once more; a well ordered argument will usually have a structure that lends itself to this presentation; a bad one shouldn’t be blamed on Powerpoint


* It makes no sense to blame a sales pitch for being a sales pitch

—> Perhaps it would be a bad idea to present one’s PhD thesis in this form, but this is hardly the major use of Powerpoint

* There is a clear danger of fetishing scruffiness for its own sake

—>I find it entirely indicative that the prejudice against “Powerpoint” is usually found together with equally irrational prejudices against “suits” and “marketing”


* Bottom line: Powerpoint has helped far more than it has hindered.

—>Think back to the pre-Powerpoint days when lecturers just gripped a lectern and droned out their speeches with no slides or handouts at all

* Very few people can give a good presentation, but this is not Powerpoint’s fault.

—>The sheer physical necessity to plan ahead in order to get one’s Powerpoints printed probably means that more speakers are at least thinking about their presentations in advance. This can only be a good thing


KCinDC 01.25.05 at 3:10 pm

How many people had background images — much less animated background images — on their slides before PowerPoint?


Sebastian Holsclaw 01.25.05 at 5:25 pm

“The sheer physical necessity to plan ahead in order to get one’s Powerpoints printed probably means that more speakers are at least thinking about their presentations in advance. This can only be a good thing”

This is possibly the best thing that powerpoint has done. Going to meetings where the speaker doesn’t know what he is talking about it no fun.


JRoth 01.25.05 at 9:22 pm

kcindc –

Is that supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing?

I’ll concede d-squared’s underlying argument – that Powerpoint facilitates some appropriate organizational principles – if he’ll concede that the default visual product is rubbish. As Keynote demonstrates, this need not be so. However, MS’s absolute dedication to the principle that anything worth doing is worth doing unattractively has lead to countless bits of ugliness foisted on unwitting audiences.

Furthermore, it isn’t just the wizards (and I would challenge your bald assertion about their (non)prevalence), but the built-in defaults themselves. I spent an afternoon setting up a clean, attractive template suited to the kinds of presentations that I do, but still find myself wasting time on every presentation undoing things that PP tries to make me do. It is, in fact, in many ways similar to so much MS software, in that the defaults are enforced, not merely what you get if you don’t tell it otherwise. Take the (meaningless) example of IE and Outlook on the desktop. I prefer a desktop with no program icons, but MS refuses me that option for no reason that benefits me.

Sorry to got so OT on a rant, but as a designer, I think it’s important to use all available nails in crucifying Bill Gates.


JRoth 01.25.05 at 9:24 pm


Not “got”

Stupid git.


dsquared 01.25.05 at 9:39 pm

Everywhere I’ve ever worked, there has been an organisation-wide standard template for presentations, and it’s usually been pretty unobjectionable. I’d be surprised if the defaults were widely used in a professional context either.

I’m sure that professionals will find all sorts of irritating things about .ppt – statistics bores have a scunner against Excel too. But on the other hand, experts love Linux and TeX, and I’ve found both of them to be unusable pieces of crap. It’s very much horses for courses.

My real disagreement with Tufte is the idea that there is a “cognitive style” of Powerpoint that can in some way be blamed for all the shortcomings of presentations. I just don’t think it’s true. Even quite bad Powerpoint presentations aare usually better than the heap of rubbish the presenter would have come up with without .ppt.


Hektor Bim 01.25.05 at 9:51 pm

“But on the other hand, experts love Linux and TeX, and I’ve found both of them to be unusable pieces of crap.”

Try making a presentation in Latex, and you’ll see that it’s perfectly easy to make a decent presentation without the ridiculous defaults or file incompatibilities that plague Powerpoint.

Not liking Latex is like not liking the air or roads if you are a mathematician or scientist. You’re showing your biases here rather strongly.


uhhh 01.25.05 at 9:57 pm

did you mean Latex, rather than Linux? (idiot)


Nerd Alert 01.26.05 at 1:55 am

“did you mean Latex, rather than Linux? (idiot)”



John Quiggin 01.26.05 at 2:03 am

LaTeX presentations are a big source of grief for me. I use Scientific Word as a front-end, and I’ve never been able to find a presentation style that works for me.


edhall 01.26.05 at 3:13 am

The problem with powerpoint is what used to be the problem with “word processing” before business got wise: high-salaried executives spend entirely too much time noodling with its superabundance of features and wind up with an inferior result. In the hands of someone competent in designing presentations Powerpoint is an important tool. But companies would do well to delete it from everyone elses disk drives, and hire profressionsals to work with people in preparing their presentations.


Kieran Healy 01.26.05 at 5:03 am

LaTeX is perfectly intuitive, once you learn it.


des von bladet 01.26.05 at 10:31 am

[C]ompanies would do well to delete [Powerpoint] from everyone elses disk drives, and hire profressionsals to work with people in preparing their presentations.

Yeah, right after they hire a secretary to type for me and fix up (as they used to, although not for me) the infelicities of my prose…


jet 01.26.05 at 1:57 pm


Now that is funny. TeX is in the same family as LaTeX. Linux is where both applications are mostly found (coming default in most distros) and is often found incomprehensible to those coming from a Windows background. So, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you are the idiot here, tough guy.

As for anyone who finds LaTeX difficult, there are great manuals you can look at online or order from Amazon. And for Linux, if you want a distro useable by non-techies, try Fedora Core 3. You will probably need someone with *nix skilz to help you on the install though.


Kieran Healy 01.26.05 at 2:26 pm

And for Linux, if you want a distro useable by non-techies, try Fedora Core 3.

Or Mac OS X.

(Ducks out of sight.)


des von bladet 01.26.05 at 4:22 pm

jet: Maths (“math”) and physics departments are where (La)TeX is mostly found.

Personally, I’ve run Linux since 1995 (kernel 1.2.13 nostalgia, yo!) and the next computer I buy will be a Mac for very sure: Linux is now almost as militantly unwilling to tell you what’s going on (“user friendly”) as Windows, without any obvious compensation.

And I produce all my documents in LaTeX and while it is the best there is at what it does, getting it to do things package-authors didn’t expect you to want to do often sucks, in the American idiom, ass. And Lamport’s book is without question the worst technical documentation I’ve paid stand-alone cash for.

So there.


nnyhav 01.26.05 at 7:10 pm

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