Free Culture
By Lawrence Lessig

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Chapter Nine: Collectors

In April 1996, millions of “bots”—computer codes designed to “spider,” or automatically search the Internet and copy content—began running across the Net. Page by page, these bots copied Internet-based information onto a small set of computers located in a basement in San Francisco’s Presidio. Once the bots finished the whole of the Internet, they started again. Over and over again, once every two months, these bits of code took copies of the Internet and stored them.

By October 2001, the bots had collected more than five years of copies. And at a small announcement in Berkeley, California, the archive that these copies created, the Internet Archive, was opened to the world. Using a technology called “the Way Back Machine,” you could enter a Web page, and see all of its copies going back to 1996, as well as when those pages changed.

This is the thing about the Internet that Orwell would have appreciated. In the dystopia described in 1984, old newspapers were constantly updated to assure that the current view of the world, approved of by the government, was not contradicted by previous news reports. Thousands of workers constantly reedited the past, meaning there was no way ever to know whether the story you were reading today was the story that was printed on the date published on the paper.

It’s the same with the Internet. If you go to a Web page today, there’s no way for you to know whether the content you are reading is the same as the content you read before. The page may seem the same, but the content could easily be different. The Internet is Orwell’s library—constantly updated, without any reliable memory.

Until the Way Back Machine, at least. With the Way Back Machine, and the Internet Archive underlying it, you can see what the Internet was. You have the power to see what you remember. More importantly, perhaps, you also have the power to find what you don’t remember and what others might prefer you forget. [1]


We take it for granted that we can go back to see what we remember reading. Think about newspapers. If you wanted to study the reaction of your hometown newspaper to the race riots in Watts in 1965, or to Bull Connor’s water cannon in 1963, you could go to your public library and look at the newspapers. Those papers probably exist on microfiche. If you’re lucky, they exist in paper, too. Either way, you are free, using a library, to go back and remember—not just what it is convenient to remember, but remember something close to the truth.

It is said that those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it.That’s not quite correct. We all forget history. The key is whether we have a way to go back to rediscover what we forget. More directly, the key is whether an objective past can keep us honest. Libraries help do that, by collecting content and keeping it, for schoolchildren, for researchers, for grandma. A free society presumes this knowledge.

The Internet was an exception to this presumption. Until the Internet Archive, there was no way to go back. The Internet was the quintessentially transitory medium. And yet, as it becomes more important in forming and reforming society, it becomes more and more important to maintain in some historical form. It’s just bizarre to think that we have scads of archives of newspapers from tiny towns around the world, yet there is but one copy of the Internet—the one kept by the Internet Archive.

Brewster Kahle is the founder of the Internet Archive. He was a very successful Internet entrepreneur after he was a successful computer researcher. In the 1990s, Kahle decided he had had enough business success. It was time to become a different kind of success. So he launched a series of projects designed to archive human knowledge. The Internet Archive was just the first of the projects of this Andrew Carnegie of the Internet. By December of 2002, the archive had over 10 billion pages, and it was growing at about a billion pages a month.

The Way Back Machine is the largest archive of human knowledge in human history. At the end of 2002, it held “two hundred and thirty terabytes of material”—and was “ten times larger than the Library of Congress.” And this was just the first of the archives that Kahle set out to build. In addition to the Internet Archive, Kahle has been constructing the Television Archive. Television, it turns out, is even more ephemeral than the Internet. While much of twentieth- century culture was constructed through television, only a tiny proportion of that culture is available for anyone to see today. Three hours of news are recorded each evening by Vanderbilt University—thanks to a specific exemption in the copyright law.That content is indexed, and is available to scholars for a very low fee. “But other than that, [television] is almost unavailable,” Kahle told me. “If you were Barbara Walters you could get access to [the archives], but if you are just a graduate student?” As Kahle put it,

“Do you remember when Dan Quayle was interacting with Murphy Brown? Remember that back and forth surreal experience of a politician interacting with a fictional television character? If you were a graduate student wanting to study that, and you wanted to get those original back and forth exchanges between the two, the 60 Minutes episode that came out after it ... it would be almost impossible. ... Those materials are almost unfindable. ...”

Why is that? Why is it that the part of our culture that is recorded in newspapers remains perpetually accessible, while the part that is recorded on videotape is not? How is it that we’ve created a world where researchers trying to understand the effect of media on nineteenth-century America will have an easier time than researchers trying to understand the effect of media on twentieth-century America?

In part, this is because of the law. Early in American copyright law, copyright owners were required to deposit copies of their work in libraries. These copies were intended both to facilitate the spread of knowledge and to assure that a copy of the work would be around once the copyright expired, so that others might access and copy the work.

These rules applied to film as well. But in 1915, the Library of Congress made an exception for film. Film could be copyrighted so long as such deposits were made. But the filmmaker was then allowed to borrow back the deposits—for an unlimited time at no cost. In 1915 alone, there were more than 5,475 films deposited and “borrowed back.” Thus, when the copyrights to films expire, there is no copy held by any library. The copy exists—if it exists at all—in the library archive of the film company. [2]

The same is generally true about television. Television broadcasts were originally not copyrighted—there was no way to capture the broadcasts, so there was no fear of “theft.” But as technology enabled capturing, broadcasters relied increasingly upon the law. The law required they make a copy of each broadcast for the work to be “copy-righted.” But those copies were simply kept by the broadcasters. No library had any right to them; the government didn’t demand them. The content of this part of American culture is practically invisible to anyone who would look.

Kahle was eager to correct this. Before September 11, 2001, he and his allies had started capturing television. They selected twenty stations from around the world and hit the Record button. After September 11, Kahle, working with dozens of others, selected twenty stations from around the world and, beginning October 11, 2001, made their coverage during the week of September 11 available free on- line. Anyone could see how news reports from around the world covered the events of that day.

Kahle had the same idea with film. Working with Rick Prelinger, whose archive of film includes close to 45,000 “ephemeral films” (meaning films other than Hollywood movies, films that were never copyrighted), Kahle established the Movie Archive. Prelinger let Kahle digitize 1,300 films in this archive and post those films on the Internet to be downloaded for free. Prelinger’s is a for- profit company. It sells copies of these films as stock footage. What he has discovered is that after he made a significant chunk available for free, his stock footage sales went up dramatically. People could easily find the material they wanted to use. Some downloaded that material and made films on their own. Others purchased copies to enable other films to be made. Either way, the archive enabled access to this important part of our culture. Want to see a copy of the “Duck and Cover” film that instructed children how to save themselves in the middle of nuclear attack? Go to, and you can download the film in a few minutes—for free.

Here again, Kahle is providing access to a part of our culture that we otherwise could not get easily, if at all. It is yet another part of what defines the twentieth century that we have lost to history. The law doesn’t require these copies to be kept by anyone, or to be deposited in an archive by anyone. Therefore, there is no simple way to find them.

The key here is access, not price. Kahle wants to enable free access to this content, but he also wants to enable others to sell access to it. His aim is to ensure competition in access to this important part of our culture. Not during the commercial life of a bit of creative property, but during a second life that all creative property has—a noncommercial life.

For here is an idea that we should more clearly recognize. Every bit of creative property goes through different “lives.” In its first life, if the creator is lucky, the content is sold. In such cases the commercial market is successful for the creator. The vast majority of creative property doesn’t enjoy such success, but some clearly does. For that content, commercial life is extremely important. Without this commercial market, there would be, many argue, much less creativity.

After the commercial life of creative property has ended, our tradition has always supported a second life as well. A newspaper delivers the news every day to the doorsteps of America. The very next day, it is used to wrap fish or to fill boxes with fragile gifts or to build an archive of knowledge about our history. In this second life, the content can continue to inform even if that information is no longer sold.

The same has always been true about books. A book goes out of print very quickly (the average today is after about a year [3]). After it is out of print, it can be sold in used book stores without the copyright owner getting anything and stored in libraries, where many get to read the book, also for free. Used book stores and libraries are thus the second life of a book. That second life is extremely important to the spread and stability of culture.

Yet increasingly, any assumption about a stable second life for creative property does not hold true with the most important components of popular culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For these—television, movies, music, radio, the Internet—there is no guarantee of a second life. For these sorts of culture, it is as if we’ve replaced libraries with Barnes & Noble superstores. With this culture, what’s accessible is nothing but what a certain limited market demands. Beyond that, culture disappears.


For most of the twentieth century, it was economics that made this so. It would have been insanely expensive to collect and make accessible all television and film and music: The cost of analog copies is extraordinarily high. So even though the law in principle would have restricted the ability of a Brewster Kahle to copy culture generally, the real restriction was economics. The market made it impossibly difficult to do anything about this ephemeral culture; the law had little practical effect.

Perhaps the single most important feature of the digital revolution is that for the first time since the Library of Alexandria, it is feasible to imagine constructing archives that hold all culture produced or distributed publicly. Technology makes it possible to imagine an archive of all books published, and increasingly makes it possible to imagine an archive of all moving images and sound.

The scale of this potential archive is something we’ve never imagined before. The Brewster Kahles of our history have dreamed about it; but we are for the first time at a point where that dream is possible. As Kahle describes,

“It looks like there’s about two to three million recordings of music. Ever. There are about a hundred thousand theatrical releases of movies, ... and about one to two million movies [distributed] during the twentieth century. There are about twenty-six million different titles of books. All of these would fit on computers that would fit in this room and be able to be afforded by a small company. So we’re at a turning point in our history. Universal access is the goal. And the opportunity of leading a different life, based on this, is ... thrilling. It could be one of the things humankind would be most proud of. Up there with the Library of Alexandria, putting a man on the moon, and the invention of the printing press.”

Kahle is not the only librarian. The Internet Archive is not the only archive. But Kahle and the Internet Archive suggest what the future of libraries or archives could be. When the commercial life of creative property ends, I don’t know. But it does. And whenever it does, Kahle and his archive hint at a world where this knowledge, and culture, remains perpetually available. Some will draw upon it to understand it; some to criticize it. Some will use it, as Walt Disney did, to re-create the past for the future. These technologies promise something that had become unimaginable for much of our past—a future for our past. The technology of digital arts could make the dream of the Library of Alexandria real again.

Technologists have thus removed the economic costs of building such an archive. But lawyers’ costs remain. For as much as we might like to call these “archives,” as warm as the idea of a “library” might seem, the “content” that is collected in these digital spaces is also some-one’s “property.” And the law of property restricts the freedoms that Kahle and others would exercise.


Preface  •  Introduction  •  “piracy”  •  Chapter One: Creators  •  Chapter Two: “Mere Copyists”  •  Chapter Three: Catalogs  •  Chapter Four: “Pirates”  •  Chapter Five: “Piracy”  •  “property”  •  Chapter Six: Founders  •  Chapter Seven: Recorders  •  Chapter Eight: Transformers  •  Chapter Nine: Collectors  •  Chapter Ten: “Property”  •  Puzzles - Chapter Eleven: Chimera  •  Chapter Twelve: Harms  •  Balances  •  Chapter Thirteen: Eldred  •  Chapter Fourteen: Eldred II  •  Conclusion  •  Afterword  •  Us, Now  •  Them, Soon  •  Registration and Renewal  •  Marking  •  Notes  •  Acknowledgments

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Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity
By Lawrence Lessig
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