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CC in Review: Lawrence Lessig on Interoperability

Lawrence Lessig, October 19th, 2005

[This is part of a weekly series written by Lawrence Lessig and others about the history and future of Creative Commons.
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From last week’s episode:
… Like the Free Software Movement, we believed this device would help open a space for creativity freed of much of the burden of copyright law. But unlike the Free Software Movement, our aim was not to eliminate “proprietary culture” as at least some in the Free Software Movement would like to eliminate proprietary software. Instead, we believed that by building a buttress of free culture (meaning culture that can be used freely at least for some important purposes), we could resist the trends that push the other way. Most importantly, the trend fueled by the race to “digital rights management” (DRM) technologies.

What’s wrong with DRM? And what about “fair use”? Great questions. Tune in next week for the start of an answer.

The story continued:

So imagine this happy picture: Your 14 year old daughter has to write a school report about the recent floods in New Orleans. The question she’s assigned is this: “How did people’s views about the disaster differ depending upon their background?” So she does what many kids increasingly do: she goes to the Internet to begin her work. She searches in Google for news about the flood. And she begins to gather places to look to complete her research.

Imagine she finds an archive with sound recordings of victims of the flood. Then she finds collections of news programs, reporting on the flood. Finally she finds some polling data asking about the response the American government should make to the flood, and about views about the responses the government has already made.

Then using these different voices, films, and descriptions, your daughter creates a short film of her own. She integrates the voices from the sound archive as narration, and then takes short clips from the news programs to show differing views. And when she’s finished, she proudly shows you her work, and you (predictably) believe you have the next George Lucas on your hands.

Interoperability. Perhaps the most important thing that the Internet has given us is a platform upon which experience is interoperable. At first, the aim of the computer and network geniuses was simply to find a way to make computers talk to each other. Then application geniuses found ways to make the content that runs on these different devices interoperate on a single digital platform. We are close to a world where any format of sound can be mixed with any format of video, and then supplemented with any format of text or images. There are exceptions; there are some who don’t play in this interoperability game. But the push of the network has been to produce a world where anyone can clip and combine just about anything to make something new. Just as the senses process many different kinds of experiences (sound, images, smell, emotions) and then offer them for translation on a single platform (the brain), so too have digital networks made it possible to combine many forms of media, and make them usable on single platform.

This convergence is what makes your daughter’s creative work possible. Of course, in a sense she’s doing nothing different from what film makers have done for almost a century. But the difference is that she’s not a film maker, and you didn’t have to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment. The digital technologies and the Internet have democratized this way of speaking. And we’re just beginning to see the creativity that this change has produced.

But think for a second about what made it possible for your daughter to produce the film she produced. It wasn’t just the existence of certain technologies — digital technology, and especially the Internet. It was also the absence of other technology — namely, technologies to control how and whether she could use the content she found. When your daughter copied the sound recordings of survivors, the computer didn’t ask, ‘for what purpose?’ When she integrated those recordings into her movie, the software didn’t demand that she show she had permission. She was able to do all the things she did because the technology is oblivious to whether she had permission to do what she did. The Internet was not built with permissions in mind. Free access was the rule.

That free access creates many problems for many — indeed in principle, it might create problems for us all. Record and film companies are notorious for complaining about this Internet feature. Given its original design, you could “share” your complete record and film collection with your 100,000 “best friends.” It’s not surprising that they view this feature rather as a bug. But I suggest any of us might regret this feature of the net in certain circumstances. Do you really like it that someone can take a personal email you sent him and forward it to his 100 best friends?

The point is that however good free access is, sometimes, at least some think its not very good, at least for them. And the most powerful of these some have therefore pushed for technologies that would be layered onto the Internet and enable them, or content owners generally, to control how digital content gets used. So if you buy a song from an online music store, perhaps you can copy it to four or five of your machines, but you can’t copy it 20 times, or post it on the Internet for others to access. Or if you are sent a confidential report, the technologies might disable your ability to print the report, or to move it to a different machine. The ability to control is essentially limitless — imagine any control you’d like, and there’s someone out there working on adding that control to the technologies of the Net.

Call these technologies in general “Digital Rights Management” technologies (DRM). My claim at the end of last week’s missive was that there was a strong push to layer DRM onto the Internet, and that that push was a bad thing.

But I don’t think DRM is a bad thing because I think that violating others’ rights is a good thing. The bad in DRM is that if it is deployed universally as a default, it would move us from one bad extreme to another. No doubt, DRM might make it easier for record companies to stop the illegal spread of their content. But it would also destroy the opportunities for the kind of uses that began this (already too long) email — creative, unexpected, critical use. We would move from a world where free use was the default, to a world where permission for every use would be the rule.

So how would Creative Commons licenses help with this problem? Our view is that they would help restore some balance between both extremes. We believed that if we provided a simple way for creators to say what freedoms they intend their content to carry, that would, for many creators, be enough. Not enough for Hollywood releasing a new film, perhaps. But enough for the widest range of creators who are making accessible their creative work through the Net.

Or put differently, we wanted to offer a technology to make it easy to say what rights were reserved, and what rights were not, which we hope would make it unnecessary to then add technology to enforce the rights reserved. “Digital Rights Expression” was our aim. And our hope was that good DRE would staunch at least some of the demand for crude DRM.

But why not add DRM to the rights expressed through Creative Commons DRE? What’s wrong with a cheap system to enforce the rights still reserved?

There are two problems at least. We can see the first by returning to the picture of what made this network amazing — interoperability. Widespread DRM would disable that interoperability. Or at least, it would disable interoperability without permission first. We could remix, or add, or criticize, using digital content, only with the permission of the content controller. And that requirement of permission first would certainly disable a large part of the potential that the Internet could realize.

The second problem relates to “fair use.” The law of copyright has never given copyright owners the right to perfect control over their copyrighted work. Fair use is a codified exception to that control. As we see them today, DRM technologies cannot respect “fair use.”

Why is that so? And how does Creative Commons respect fair use? Again, stay tuned for next week’s answers.

Week 2 – CC in Review: Lawrence Lessig on How it All Began (translated to Spanish — Thanks to Maria Cristinia Alvite for translation)

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