Lawrence Lessig, a prominent icon of the Free Culture movement, spoke passionately to a full Science Center lecture hall last Friday evening. Lessig discussed the origins of the movement, which ultimately seeks to reform copyright law in a new era of digital technologies. New digital technologies have allowed anyone with a $1500 computer system to borrow, alter and mix material from the past – from music to lyrics to public speeches – for new creative purposes. Existing copyright laws, however, place tight restrictions on these everyday practices and stifle creativity for the independent artist.
In a theatrical presentation saturated with audio and video clips, Lessig drew upon many examples to familiarize the audience with the cause. He presented the case of DJ Danger Mouse, who mixed music from the Beatle’s White Album with Jay-Z’s Black Album to create his own Grey Album. Failing to have gained the permission of the copyright holders, the EMI recording company prohibited the distribution of this creation in early 2004. For Free Culture activists, this represents an example of how corporate interests stifle artistic creativity via outdated copyright laws.
Lessig sought to dispel a common misconception that the movement champions the right to download copyrighted music freely from the Internet. Said Lessig, “This isn’t just about consumption. If this is about getting Britney Spears for free then I don’t want anything to do with it.” Instead, he emphasized, the movement is about the freedom to remake and contribute to an ever-changing culture by borrowing upon the material of the past.
Lessig is a central figure in the Free Culture movement. In his introduction to the evening’s event, Swarthmore Coalition for the Digital Commons president Nelson Pavlosky ’06 stated that if it wasn’t for Lessig, he and his peers would not have thought to sue Diebold or create SCDC in the last year.
The presence of laptops and video cameras, as well as a rousing standing ovation were representative of the audience’s sympathy to the message.
Friday’s event also marked the launch of freeculture.org, a website created by SCDC to mobilize students around the world for the cause of “freeing culture.”