At Vimeo Festival, a Call to Relax Copyright Laws

For artists who use existing works–especially photos, video clips and music–as raw material for their own creations, the “Know Your Digital Rights” seminar at last week’s Vimeo Festival + Awards was something of a call to arms.

“I don’t think you have any digital rights, yet,” declared Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, co-founder of the Creative Commons and a vocal advocate for copyright reform. “This community has to accept the reality of the way law treats you. The law believes that most of the creativity being celebrated this weekend [at the Vimeo Festival] is presumptively illegal.”

He called on artists to force a change in copyright law by “teaching the culture and the law that this kind of creativity”–re-purposing, transforming, and remixing the copyrighted works of others to create new works–“should be accepted and encouraged.”

He offered his prescription: “To encourage the law [to change], we need to do an enormous amount of [re-purposed art] and spread it–not just on Vimeo, but in schools, in bars, every place we can. We have to respect the people whose art we build upon. But we don’t respect them in the old fashioned way, by having our lawyer call their lawyer. Respect in the 21st century is acknowledgment. When you use someone else’s work, you give them credit.

“We need to stand up and acknowledge what we’re doing, give people credit, and thank them, but not ask permission,” Lessig said.

“By demanding that, we can teach this culture how this form of expression is essential. When we’ve taught the culture, the law catches up…even Congress recognizes that it needs to relax [the law] a little bit.”

But creators who use the works of others without permission must allow the same free re-use of their own works, Lessig added.

Sharing the stage with Lessig was Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, a musician and re-mix artist who also believes in the principle of share and share alike. “Copyright laws are unenforceable,” Miller asserted. “The way the law is written versus the way we live are parting ways.”

In response to an audience member who asked about balancing the interests of those who want compensation for use of their copyrighted works and with those who want to repurpose content for the sake of art, Lessig insisted that he’s “a big believer in copyright. We need it, especially in the digital age. But the [current law] is completely senseless in the digital age….someday we might be able to sit down and say what a new architecture for copyright law looks like in digital age.”

Miller said people ask him, “Why would you want to give your work away for free? What’s in it for you?”

He explained to the Vimeo Festival audience that his compensation for giving away his work is  “cultural capital.” He cited examples of works that he gave away for free that went viral, and the result was that he got “more branding and buzz….In many cultures, people give away things as a way of gaining status,” he said. “I still make money. Nobody likes being broke. But he economy of free can bring back a lot more return [than you think].”

Miller also said that he makes a distinction between users of his works. He’s not concerned about individuals using his music as soundtracks for their videos or for their art projects. “I don’t sue people. But if Nike did that, I’d have my lawyers calling them. If some kid is using a track, I let it go. You build your reputation off the credibility you gain from having your work shared and used.”

Lessig said, “I never tell artists that they should give away work. If you’re interested in distinguishing between commercial markets [where users of your work pay] and community markets [where users don’t pay], the [Creative Commons] non-commercial license was designed for that. If you want to make a commercial use of your work, then you have to ask [permission] of the artists” [who’s work you have used.]

Asked whether artists should be able to make money from works they create by appropriating the work of other artists, Lessig said, “I absolutely believe that people
have a right to be compensated. And people say to that, ‘You’re letting people take works for free and make money off it.’ That’s right, but….[if there were] a cheap automatic way to figure out who owns what, there may be a way to get compesnation back to the original artists. But for that to work, you have to make copyright a more automatic system. Now there is no way to know who you need to compensate. Copyright is the most inefficient property rights system known to man. And that’s why you have the right to take it and use it.”

Currently, copyright owners can resist the dissemination of unauthorized uses of their works by invoking the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Under that law, copyright owners can press internet service providers to take down works that allegedly violate copyrights. But Lessig expressed hope that sites such as YouTube, Vimeo and others become less quick to abide by DMCA take-down notices as they compete with each other to attract the most creative artists.

And Miller advised, “If you get a take down notice, re-name [your work] and re-post it in different formats. Get into an arms race with them. Make it tedious for them.”

Downplayed (but not unmentioned) by Lessig and Miller was the legal risk of defying the current copyright law. While they and others advise artists to push for what amounts to a broad expansion of fair use, the financial penalties for defying the existing law remain prohibitive.

28 Responses to “At Vimeo Festival, a Call to Relax Copyright Laws”

  1. Ambrose Pierce Says:

    Lessig is an attorney who is drawing a salary from among others a university. He isn’t worried about being compensated for his creative works, because he isn’t a creative person.

    I think if artists want to thrive in an electronic culture that has become increasingly hostile to those who create content, they must empower themselves by controlling the rights to copy their work. You can’t eat a “credit” as Lessig would suggest.

    If you look at Lessig’s suggested business model, and see where it is “successful”, it only works when an artist is giving away creative works as a way to entice someone to ultimately buy something physical, or something that cannot be digitized and disseminated freely on the internet. This is not a model that works in the interest of most artists as most are not promoting widgets through their art, but rather their art is in of itself the very thing that is of value and can easily be digitize and disseminated. To give it away, or to change the copyright law in such a way that the artist would not be entitled to compensation for unauthorized use, is to take away the artist’s livelihood.

    Lessig has not considered the true implications of his theories because he is anti-corporate. He could care less about the individual artist because he has a larger agenda–Sony, Disney, Pixer. He wants to smash the corporate establishment. That’s fine and dandy, most of us would like to see some of the wealth spread around from these companies rather than lining the pockets of the very few. However, in Lessig’s quest to ruin these companies, there’s a massive community of artists whom he is damaging. They are not multi-billion dollar behemoths–but individuals who will be effectively stripped of their livelihood if Lessig has his way.

    For any independent contractor, or freelance artist, who has bought into Lessig’s ideas, this is something to very seriously consider.

  2. Wes Syposz Says:

    digital technology made it easy to steal but it did not change the fact that it is still the theft

  3. Mark Forman Says:

    Having others take you posted work is not right and is most definetly theft.
    Having experienced this I can say that it truly is a no gain situation.
    If you discover one of your images being linked without permission do this.
    Replace that image with the same URL but change the picture to text saying: “This site has illegally used one of my images!”
    Works wonders.

  4. Mark Forman Says:

    In addition the work plagerism comes to mind when I read the above article.

  5. Scott Bourne Says:

    Yeah this is why I don’t mess with DMCA – I just sue the bastards and if I could find any link to an infringer and Lessig I’d add a count against him for conspiracy. Stealing from other creatives – taking their work without their consent – is no way to start a dialog.

  6. Todd Klassy Says:

    He’s not even a lawyer per sei; he’s a professor of law…and his views are very typical of professors these days. Capitalism and the creativity it spurns is antiquated to them as just compensation for using someone’s art work. He believes that in doing so it is all for the common good, as much as the redistribution of wealth is.

    The only one more foolish than Lawrence Lessig is the simpleton from Vimeo who invited him to speak at a festival that celebrates artistic achievement. What a joke.

  7. Mark Stout Says:

    I would assume since Lessig believes artists have no right to expect compensation for their work, that he too works for free.

    Fair is fair Mr Lessig. If you believe what you said so strongly, then I am certain that you will have no problem with my stopping by and picking up your pay envelope each week.

    I for one believe that I have a right to earn a living from what I create. I don’t much appreciate those who think I OWE my creativity to the world.

  8. JC @ Photography Tours - Caribbean Says:

    Seems everyone has the same opinion, rightly so

    Caribbean Photography Tours

  9. Lawrence Lessig and DJ Spooky (?) Prescribe Thievery — Atlanta Photojournalist Allen Sullivan | Editorial, Documentary, Multimedia, Photographer, Videographer - Blog Says:

    […] Photo District News: At Vimeo Festival, a Call to Relax Copyright Laws […]

  10. Ted VanCleave Says:

    We have a new service to help find copyright violations and recover settlement fees for unauthorized use of your work. Image theft is illegal.

  11. Dennis Says:

    Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig….. so glad to hear that you take your knowledge, skills and abilities and work for Harvard for free (as you advocate sharing and not earning a living).
    Yea…. thought not… you still put food on the table and a roof over your head by using your knowledge, skills and abilities… and until you quit being a hypocrit…….

  12. Laura Lee Says:

    I am an author trying to make a living from “creative works” and I am going to jump in and go on record as being in favor of more relaxed copyright laws. The idea of copyright is to provide a limited monopoly in order to create an incentive for a creative individual to make more work. Almost a century after a person is dead, it is safe to say that his best work is behind him. I have had a novel that was of interest to a publisher, but they rejected it because it cited song lyrics and they thought the rights would be too expensive to clear. These were one line references by characters to popular songs. With traditional publishing, the beneficiary is not always the artist in any case. Often a work is copyrighted by a publisher or record label. I am in favor of any system that puts more of the reward for the creation of work into the pockets of living artists, and a system that does not cause works that are not economically lucrative from falling into a void where they are not allowed to be cited by others, but not worth publishing by the copyright holder and thus disappear. I would like to see a more flexible licensing option that is not “everyone can take anything” or “everything is locked up.” Disney can keep steamboat willy forever locked up as long as they don’t lock up the rest of the culture in the process.

  13. Steve Skoll Says:

    Hi Laura,

    With all due respect, certain rights being too expensive to license simply is not reason enough to loosen our copyright laws. Whether or not the rights you attempted to license were actually too expensive is a condition more having to do with the value placed on your book by your publisher then whether or not our copyright laws are too restrictive. Many things are too expensive for me. But that’s not reason enough to loosen copyright law so I can copy them. Especially when I would then use copied works for commercial purposes. Financial or otherwise.

    If a person has been dead for near a century it’s possible certain copyrights have passed into the public domain.

    Finally, I truly appreciate your respect of the copyright of others.

    Steve Skoll

  14. I Love Photography, and I Am Not On Board with Creative Commons. | LIGHTING ESSENTIALS For Photographers Says:

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  15. Eduardo Frances Says:

    For Lessig is easy to go and make such an absurd proposition:, he doesn´t has anything to loose because he has his monthly salary paid by Harvard University, however for the rest of us making a salary, paying our taxes, paying our bills, etc. from our work be it photography, video, audio, and any other field protected under copyright laws means loosing or way to get our income, pay our bills, pay our taxes, etc.!

    If Lessig is so adamant to defend this idiocy then he should stop accepting any form of payment for any kind of work he does for a full year and then report back how well he spent the whole year without a salary, this way he would experience in his own flesh what would happen if we let go our right to ask for a monetary compensation in exchange of a determined license to use our work.

  16. Bec Thomas Says:

    Why does he think it’s perfectly acceptable to steal creative works when I bet he wouldn’t think it’s acceptable to steal food from a store….? He’s made some rather uncreative justifications to steal other people’s property and his law license should be questioned for telling people to break the law and give them advice on how to do it.

  17. Michele Stapleton Says:

    It’s obvious that Lessig has never tried to support himself as an artist. Either that, or he doesn’t get it that this is what we do for a living and that we have to earn money to continue to create. The artists should be able to decide if he/she wants to share his work for mere exposure and buzz. Not the government. “Exposure” doesn’t pay the power and water bills and buzz doesn’t put food on the table.

  18. Em Says:

    @Michele Stapleton — “artists should be able to decide if he/she wants to share his work for mere exposure and buzz”

    The above is actually a pretty good summary of what creative commons is designed to do .

    Again I think there are some valid points being made, but to brand Lessig as an advocate for just breaking the law or giving it all away for free doesn’t really fit.

  19. Sean Says:

    Steal my works and I won’t bother with lawyers.
    I’ll simply hunt your ass down and chop off the offending hand.

  20. Michael Margolies Says:

    I have to agree with the majority here. This is another example of an academic making unrealistic suggestions from his ivory tower without having any real world knowledge or ethics.

    People go crazy for example if a political message uses a song or image if the artist leans another way. I for one would not want my work become part of some other persons art without my being able to control how it would be used. You could easily see your work show up promoting an ideology for example that you completely oppose. But this guy thinks that it’s a great idea.

    Further, to me much of the so-called art is sloppy and lazy, people with little talent take the creativity and work of others and slap it together calling it art. Any kindergardener can do that.

  21. Em Says:

    @Michael – I don’t disagree with your concerns but would throw out a few additional points for discussion.

    I think its interesting you described Lessig’s suggestions as “unrealistic” and wrote about your desire for “control” because these are two central themes in the discussion about the future of copyright.
    In a comment a few days ago (that is still awaiting comment moderation??) I wrote that I think Lessig is calling for examining and reevaluating the copyright laws as they are currently written and how it’s working for us in a digital age.

    And I think this is a key point. Many feel the laws as they are currently written for copyright are “unrealistic” and that “control” in this age is an illusion. I don’t think its about asking artists to give all their stuff away for free, but to examine how copyright has changed in a digital age and how we can adapt to it. In addition, I’m not sure fighting the current “war on copyright” is benefiting artists or our society.
    Finally I think some artists who remix or mashup media might be sloppy, but some create some really interesting new works – I’m not sure its fair to dismiss it all as having no artistic merit but art as always been subject to different interpretation.

  22. Deb Says:

    Mr. Lessig posted a response/rebuttal on the Huffington Post.

  23. Richard Says:

    the professor has confused intellectual property with copyrighted property. being married to an academic, i understand his point. intellectual property has to be public to allow the next researcher to move forward with the body of knowledge. being a photographer, i know the academic paradigm will not work in the world of the professional. i need to be compensated for my professional efforts. if i want to use someone’s work in a project, i ask permission first.

  24. Colette Says:

    It’s interesting that nobody has commented after Lessig’s HuffPo article explaining the talk in context, and also after the author of this article admitted he had misquoted Lessig. Thoughts anyone?

  25. Colette Says:

    One clarification, the article may not have misquoted Lessig. It’s unclear to me, but @wizwow is who Lessig mentions as misquoting in reference to this article. Lessig’s HuffPo piece is here:

  26. PDN Pulse » Blog Archive » Lessig Defends His Controversial Ideas About Copyright Says:

    […] As we reported here, Lessig  called on re-mix artists to push for changes in the law to make it easier to re-purpose, transform and re-mix the copyrighted works of others to make new works.  With criticism raining down upon him ever since, he used Huffington Post to elaborate on his provocative and–I dare say–not entirely unreasonable position. […]

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  28. MHmedia Says:

    Gee Lawrence, thanks so much for telling me where I’ve been going wrong, stoopidly expecting people to pay for the photographs that I take. Better still, why don’t I just post an ad on my website to ask people to come and use all my gear (at my expense of course) – heh, it only cost me $10K or so to set up.

    If you ask me nicely I might even print pictures for people and mail them out.