Lessig: 'We're in a copyright war'

In his day, Walt Disney was legally free to borrow and build upon others' good ideas. Stanford Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig says he is on a crusade to return this type of creative freedom to artists and writers so that they, too, may extrapolate from their predecessors' works.

Copyrights that persist for decades, combined with advances in technology, have put much more of our cultural heritage legally off-limits for adaptation and commentary than ever before, Lessig maintained at the annual Walter E. Edge Lecture, delivered Thursday evening, Feb. 20. "We're in the middle of a copyright war," he told the crowd of approximately 300 in McCosh 50.

Lessig is founder of Stanford's Center for Internet and Society and an advocate of what he terms "The Creative Commons," where free access to the creative works of the past nurtures independent, well-regulated social criticism.

For writers, thinkers, artists, satirists and all others who create with intent to profit, the work of their predecessors is no longer ore to be shaped into something new, as it has been for centuries, but a license that must be purchased, Lessig said.

Works in the public domain can be repurposed freely. Under current copyright law, however, hundreds of thousands of works have been taken out of the public domain. Most literary and artistic works are protected by copyrights that go on for 75 years, and Congress has evaded constitutional challenges to the current duration, Lessig said.

"How is it in a free society that we have to ask permission to tell stories spun from stories?" he posed.

Under this law it is illegal to duplicate others' copyrighted works, a restriction that is now being technologically enforced, Lessig said. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, enacted in 1998, allows for software and hardware innovations that detect copyrighted material and restrict duplication. However, those barriers are anachronistic in the digital age when sharing recorded music, pictures or writing with a friend almost requires making a copy, Lessig maintained.

It was not always so. While the Walt Disney Co. is keenly protective of its copyrights, Walt Disney, the man, founded his Mickey Mouse empire on what today would be considered flagrant plagiarism, Lessig said. The Mickey Mouse character was first introduced in 1928 as Steamboat Willie. Willie was an overt adaptation of the then-popular Steamboat Bill character portrayed by comic actor Buster Keaton, he added.

"Walt Disney embraced the freedom to take, change and return ideas from our popular culture," Lessig said. "The rip, mix and burn culture of the Internet is Disney-familiar."

The U.S. Constitution specifies that Congress can set copyrights "for a limited time." That was originally limited to 14 years, with 14 more years if the author was still alive.

In addition to today's rule that copyrights are to last 75 years, a retroactive, blanket extension was added by the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998. The extension means approximately 400,000 books, songs and movies produced between 1923 and 1943 will not enter the public domain until 2018, Lessig said.

"Congress has gotten into the pattern of extending the copyright term every time Mickey Mouse is about to pass into the public domain," Lessig said. "It is perpetual copyright on the installment plan."

Lessig said he took his battle for limiting the duration of copyrights to the Supreme Court in an unsuccessful effort to have the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act stricken as unconstitutional.

"The court ruling was depressing," Lessig said. "It is illegal today for people to create the way Walt Disney was allowed to create."

Contact: Lauren Robinson-Brown (609) 258-3601