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Lawrence Lessig


In a well-known short story by H. G. Wells, a mountain climber named Nunez trips (literally, down an ice slope) into an unknown and isolated valley in the Peruvian Andes.[1] The valley is extraordinarily beautiful, with "sweet water, pasture, an even climate, slopes of rich brown soil with tangles of a shrub that bore an excellent fruit." But the villagers are all blind. Nunez takes this as an opportunity. "In the Country of the Blind," he tells himself, "the One-Eyed Man is King." So he resolves to live with the villagers to explore life as a king.

Things don't go quite as he planned. He tries to explain the idea of sight to the villagers. They don't understand. He tells them they are "blind." They don't have the word blind. They think he's just thick. Indeed, as they increasingly notice the things he can't do (hear the sound of grass being stepped on, for example), they increasingly try to control him. He, in turn, becomes increasingly frustrated. " 'You don't understand,' he cried, in a voice that was meant to be great and resolute, and which broke. 'You are blind and I can see. Leave me alone!' "

The villagers don't leave him alone. Nor do they see (so to speak) the virtue of his special power. Not even the ultimate target of his affection, a young woman who to him seems "the most beautiful thing in the whole of creation," understands the beauty of sight. Nunez's description of what he sees "seemed to her the most poetical of fancies, and she listened to his description of the stars and the mountains and her own sweet white-lit beauty as though it was a guilty indulgence." "She did not believe," Wells tells us, and "she could only half understand, but she was mysteriously delighted."

When Nunez announces his desire to marry his "mysteriously delighted" love, the father and the village object. "You see, my dear," her father instructs, "he's an idiot. He has delusions. He can't do anything right." They take Nunez to the village doctor.

After a careful examination, the doctor gives his opinion. "His brain is affected," he reports.

"What affects it?" the father asks.

"Those queer things that are called the eyes ...are diseased such a way as to affect his brain."

The doctor continues: "I think I may say with reasonable certainty that in order to cure him completely, all that we need to do is a simple and easy surgical operation--namely, to remove these irritant bodies [the eyes]."

"Thank Heaven for science!" says the father to the doctor. They inform Nunez of this condition necessary for him to be allowed his bride. (You'll have to read the original to learn what happens in the end. I believe in free culture, but never in giving away the end of a story.)

It sometimes happens that the eggs of twins fuse in the mother's womb. That fusion produces a "chimera." A chimera is a single creature with two sets of DNA. The DNA in the blood, for example, might be different from the DNA of the skin. This possibility is an underused plot for murder mysteries. "But the DNA shows with 100 percent certainty that she was not the person whose blood was at the scene. . . ."

Before I had read about chimeras, I would have said they were impossible. A single person can't have two sets of DNA. The very idea of DNA is that it is the code of an individual. Yet in fact, not only can two individuals have the same set of DNA (identical twins), but one person can have two different sets of DNA (a chimera). Our understanding of a "person" should reflect this reality.

The more I work to understand the current struggle over copyright and culture, which I've sometimes called unfairly, and sometimes not unfairly enough, "the copyright wars," the more I think we're dealing with a chimera. For example, in the battle over the question "What is p2p file sharing?" both sides have it right, and both sides have it wrong.

One side says, "File sharing is just like two kids taping each others' records--the sort of thing we've been doing for the last thirty years without any question at all." That's true, at least in part. When I tell my best friend to try out a new CD that I've bought, but rather than just send the CD, I point him to my p2p server, that is, in all relevant respects, just like what every executive in every recording company no doubt did as a kid: sharing music.

But the description is also false in part. For when my p2p server is on a p2p network through which anyone can get access to my music, then sure, my friends can get access, but it stretches the meaning of "friends" beyond recognition to say "my ten thousand best friends" can get access. Whether or not sharing my music with my best friend is what "we have always been allowed to do," we have not always been allowed to share music with "our ten thousand best friends."

Likewise, when the other side says, "File sharing is just like walking into a Tower Records and taking a CD off the shelf and walking out with it," that's true, at least in part. If, after Lyle Lovett (finally) releases a new album, rather than buying it, I go to Kazaa and find a free copy to take, that is very much like stealing a copy from Tower.

But it is not quite stealing from Tower. After all, when I take a CD from Tower Records, Tower has one less CD to sell. And when I take a CD from Tower Records, I get a bit of plastic and a cover, and something to show on my shelves. (And, while we're at it, we could also note that when I take a CD from Tower Records, the maximum fine that might be imposed on me, under California law, at least, is $1,000. According to the RIAA, by contrast, if I download a ten-song CD, I'm liable for $1,500,000 in damages.)

The point is not that it is as neither side describes. The point is that it is both--both as the RIAA describes it and as Kazaa describes it. It is a chimera. And rather than simply denying what the other side asserts, we need to begin to think about how we should respond to this chimera. What rules should govern it?

We could respond by simply pretending that it is not a chimera. We could, with the RIAA, decide that every act of file sharing should be a felony. We could prosecute families for millions of dollars in damages just because file sharing occurred on a family computer. And we can get universities to monitor all computer traffic to make sure that no computer is used to commit this crime. These responses might be extreme, but each of them has either been proposed or actually implemented.[2]

Alternatively, we could respond to file sharing the way many kids act as though we've responded. We could totally legalize it. Let there be no copyright liability, either civil or criminal, for making copyrighted content available on the Net. Make file sharing like gossip: regulated, if at all, by social norms but not by law.

Either response is possible. I think either would be a mistake. Rather than embrace one of these two extremes, we should embrace something that recognizes the truth in both. And while I end this book with a sketch of a system that does just that, my aim in the next chapter is to show just how awful it would be for us to adopt the zero-tolerance extreme. I believe either extreme would be worse than a reasonable alternative. But I believe the zero-tolerance solution would be the worse of the two extremes.

Yet zero tolerance is increasingly our government's policy. In the middle of the chaos that the Internet has created, an extraordinary land grab is occurring. The law and technology are being shifted to give content holders a kind of control over our culture that they have never had before. And in this extremism, many an opportunity for new innovation and new creativity will be lost.

I'm not talking about the opportunities for kids to "steal" music. My focus instead is the commercial and cultural innovation that this war will also kill. We have never seen the power to innovate spread so broadly among our citizens, and we have just begun to see the innovation that this power will unleash. Yet the Internet has already seen the passing of one cycle of innovation around technologies to distribute content. The law is responsible for this passing. As the vice president for global public policy at one of these new innovators,, put it when criticizing the DMCA's added protection for copyrighted material,

eMusic opposes music piracy. We are a distributor of copyrighted material, and we want to protect those rights.

But building a technology fortress that locks in the clout of the major labels is by no means the only way to protect copyright interests, nor is it necessarily the best. It is simply too early to answer that question. Market forces operating naturally may very well produce a totally different industry model.

This is a critical point. The choices that industry sectors make with respect to these systems will in many ways directly shape the market for digital media and the manner in which digital media are distributed. This in turn will directly influence the options that are available to consumers, both in terms of the ease with which they will be able to access digital media and the equipment that they will require to do so. Poor choices made this early in the game will retard the growth of this market, hurting everyone's interests.[3]

In April 2001, was purchased by Vivendi Universal, one of "the major labels." Its position on these matters has now changed.

Reversing our tradition of tolerance now will not merely quash piracy. It will sacrifice values that are important to this culture, and will kill opportunities that could be extraordinarily valuable.

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