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May 18, 2007

Personal Democracy Forum Report: Larry Lessig

by Josh Bernoff

Memos from the Personal Democracy Forum

Larry Lessig, the Harvard Stanford professor and wizard of new thinking on property rights, kicked the conference off with what mathematicians call the "Law of the excluded middle" -- the idea that in today's discourse you have to be for or against something -- you're for profit or you're against it, for example.

A good example of this is the "some rights reserved" flavor of the creative commons license.

Now he's optimistic that copyrights -- and the non-excluded middle ground -- become part of the discourse in 2008. For example, should the content of the presidential debates be free -- creative commons "by attribution" license? As he said, like Apple's "Rip. Mix. Burn." metaphor. Even in satirical contexts.

"This is a radical change in the opportunity for people to participate in the political process," he said. But it threatens networks' control of the news.  For example, NBC refused permission to use a 1-minute clip of President George W. Bush from NBC news.

Lessig calls this ability to quote from the debates, visually, is a crucial element of democracy. But he concedes that allowing networks' content to be available to all is, in a way, a tax on them -- they paid to collect that information and package and broadcast it. His solution -- put the debates on public channels and other networks that would support this kind of distribution -- like PBS or CNN. "If proprietary networks can't live by these principles," he says, then don't give them the debates.

"We reject the proprietary in some contexts," according to Lessig, and debates are one of them.

Our analysis: Lessig is onto something. I don't think he will win on these issues in the 2008 presidential election. But he will expand the debate, and is making progress on this issue. I also don't believe, as Lessig does, that copyright will become an important issue in this campaign. But politicians like Barack Obama have supported the idea of allowing the content from the debates be freely available. Debate content, excerpted, twisted, and otherwise modified, will appear on YouTube. Lawsuits will follow. And that -- over the next several years -- will move these issues into the debate.

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