Free Culture
By Lawrence Lessig

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Public Domain Books

Them, Soon

We will not reclaim a free culture by individual action alone. It will also take important reforms of laws. We have a long way to go before the politicians will listen to these ideas and implement these reforms. But that also means that we have time to build awareness around the changes that we need.

In this chapter, I outline five kinds of changes: four that are general, and one that’s specific to the most heated battle of the day, music. Each is a step, not an end. But any of these steps would carry us a long way to our end.

1. More Formalities

If you buy a house, you have to record the sale in a deed. If you buy land upon which to build a house, you have to record the purchase in a deed. If you buy a car, you get a bill of sale and register the car. If you buy an airplane ticket, it has your name on it.

These are all formalities associated with property. They are requirements that we all must bear if we want our property to be protected.

In contrast, under current copyright law, you automatically get a copyright, regardless of whether you comply with any formality. You don’t have to register. You don’t even have to mark your content. The default is control, and “formalities” are banished.


As I suggested in chapter 10, the motivation to abolish formalities was a good one. In the world before digital technologies, formalities imposed a burden on copyright holders without much benefit. Thus, it was progress when the law relaxed the formal requirements that a copyright owner must bear to protect and secure his work. Those formalities were getting in the way.

But the Internet changes all this. Formalities today need not be a burden. Rather, the world without formalities is the world that burdens creativity. Today, there is no simple way to know who owns what, or with whom one must deal in order to use or build upon the creative work of others. There are no records, there is no system to trace—there is no simple way to know how to get permission. Yet given the massive increase in the scope of copyright’s rule, getting permission is a necessary step for any work that builds upon our past. And thus, the lack of formalities forces many into silence where they otherwise could speak.

The law should therefore change this requirement [1]—but it should not change it by going back to the old, broken system. We should require formalities, but we should establish a system that will create the incentives to minimize the burden of these formalities.

The important formalities are three: marking copyrighted work, registering copyrights, and renewing the claim to copyright. Traditionally, the first of these three was something the copyright owner did; the second two were something the government did. But a revised system of formalities would banish the government from the process, except for the sole purpose of approving standards developed by others.


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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