New Media scholars and theorists look to Lawrence Lessig for guidance in the ethical mine field of intellectual property, copyright and trademark in the digital world. On the one hand, we rationally believe that an artist’s work is their own to use for whatever value they see fit and should be paid for their work in order to continue creating more work. As a musician, I feel for my friends and colleagues who passionately create music, paintings, act, etc… and then sell them or perform to make a living. But, on the other hand, the laws and lawsuits regarding copyright, trademark and (especially) patents are out of control. The rebellion against these overly complicated and/or erratically enforced laws begins to feel justified. I was always taught that a measure of a good law was in its ability to convey the understood purpose of the law with as little exceptions as possible and in the simplest way possible. Parsimony in the law is what we seem to be lacking. Current copyright and intellectual property laws require more then common sense to understand them and the average person is held responsible for infringements on these laws – many times owing monies to the copyright, patent and/or trademark owners which are in excess of the individual’s yearly salary (or lifetime salary in some cases).

Copyright may start as soon as you create the work but current law states no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with title 17 U.S.C. §411(a). According to current copyright laws, someone who creates a webpage does not necessarily gain copyright automatically and not just because they may not have registered the copyright but because the work just may not be creative in nature. Copyright protect “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, and not routine comments and mundane conversations. But where do Blogs, Tweets and YouTube mashups fit into this structure?

In the first 60 pages of his book Free Culture Lessig tells the reader to throw out their outmoded views of copyright, trademark and intellectual property and return to the free marketplace of ideas (read democracy). To Lessig, the current laws are balanced in the favor of big businesses who have the resources to actively pursue infringement (a requirement of copyright) and the lawyers who have the intellectual background to decipher the complexities of the law in  favor of big business.

What became apparent while reading this excerpt is that Lessig is espousing the ideals of the Chicago School of Thought (originally studied in sociology) – a realization that is solidified when I see that his first “academic” job was at the University of Chicago. Although the link above is to the sociology school of thought, not long after this came the Chicago School of Thought for media studies (~1930s) which followed along the same theoretical, ethical and epistemological path.

From Wikipedia – Chicago School

Though not yet named as such, media studies’ roots are in the Chicago School and thinkers such as John Dewey, Charles Cooley and George Mead. These authors saw American society on the cusp of positive social change toward pure democracy. Mead argued that for an ideal society to exist, a form of communication must be developed to allow the unique individual to appreciate the attitudes, viewpoints and positions of others unlike himself, and allow him to be understood by others as well. Mead believed that this “new media” would allow humans to empathize with others, and therefore moves toward an “ideal of human society.”[1] Where Mead sees an ideal society, Dewey names it the “Great Community,” and further asserts the assumption that humans are intelligent enough for self government, and that that knowledge is “a function of association and communication.”[2] Similarly, Cooley asserts that political communication makes public opinion possible, which in turn promotes democracy. Each of these authors represent the Chicago School’s attention to electronic communication as a facilitator of democracy, its faith in the informed electorate, and its focus on the individual as opposed to the mass.

What bloggers, YouTubers and Tweeters may be lacking is a universal code of conduct or a general mission statement for their existence in a wired democracy. I would also place citizen journalists in this category as well. Up until recently, there were no schools for bloggers to learn the craft much less schools for YouTubers and Tweeters so I can’t hold it against the general public that a “professional” code of conduct has not been formed. We should not really expect bloggers (for example) to have a general mission statement if the existence of the group was generally ignored or considered fringe to begin with. It is infinitely more difficult to form unions when you’re on the fringe.

Lessig starts this conversation by probing us to think about a world where copyright is secondary to the actual messages and its role in an informed citizenry. This point can be supported by the ideals of the Chicago School of thought and its mission statement may be a good starting place for just such a blogger/YouTuber/Tweeter manifesto. It will be interesting to see what schools come to use as their standard codes of conduct when teaching these crafts (see the new Web Design and Online Communication Masters Program offered through the College of Journalism and Communications – http://www.jou.ufl.edu/grad/webdesign/) in the future.

An example of a blogger’s manifesto (not supported by academia necessarily but the idea has good intentions):

Resources:

  • Lessig, L. (2004). Free culture: How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity. New York: Penguin Press.
  • Check out Lessig’s Blog
  • Copyright laws – http://www.copyright.gov/laws/
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