Larry Lessig in the lion's den

Net guru takes on the authors: Love is just another lawsuit

I love you so much, I'll see you in court

Now you can begin understand the antipathy in the room. However, there's much ado about not very much. Creative Commons as a "movement" is far smaller than it looks. It can barely muster 100 or so evangelists to the cause every time it "launches" in a new country (Brazil being the exception - every 50 years or so, Brazilians go nuts over some new technocratic new Silver Bullet, and right now they're really hot for Creative Commons). Isn't CC only worth getting upset about if you really want to?

Reg columnist Steve Gordon agreed: "Lessig isn't the enemy," he told us.

Larry, rather unconvincingly, attempted to grab the middle ground:

"We are not your enemy," he said. "There is an Abolitionist Movement and I spend much of my time arguing against them. Because they've built Free Software and Wikipedia they don't think copyright is needed."

"With Creative Commons...we've created copyright owners, here."

Alas, anti-copyright rhetoric is central to idea of to what enthusiasts like to style as a "movement". Creative Commons gatherings resemble a torchlight procession of copyright haters, united by only one thing: a shared belief that It Must Go. Put it this way: if the good professor attended each brave Creative Commons launch asserting the value of moral copyright, and that the soul of creativity lay with the individual author, then no one would turn up.

So when Lessig argues that he's the sensible face of the internet wingnuts, the authors aren't convinced one bit.

There were more groans when Lessig explained the practical value of Commons licenses.

He said that copyright worked fine if you were Madonna, and had a battery of expensive lawyers to assert your rights in court. He justified the Commons licenses as a "tool" that put such power into ordinary people's hands. Creative Commons was a tool for people who didn't have lawyers, he was arguing.

And he put this so nicely that if you didn't know anything about how copyright works - or didn't know about the power of collective action - you might conceivably believe him.

Alas, the small print on the Creative Commons site confirms the opposite is true. Creative Commons emphatically isn't an organisation that will fight your corner. So if you want to assert that your license has been violated - you're on your own. In fact, Lessig even recommends consulting a lawyer before you decide whether or not to take up a Creative Commons license.

Get with the program

In the end, two things happened.

Firstly, Lessig kept his best ammunition dry, to be deployed another day. Only around a third of this audience were actually creatives: the majority being bureaucrats, who looked every inch the part in their beige suits, comfortable, and well-fed. While your reporter typed at the back of the hall, these CISAC executives slumbered, waking only to make the odd cynical disparaging comment.

A future version of the professor - 3.0? - should be able to make the case that authors are ill-served by such complacent types, and he may use his communication gifts to show them how to embrace law and technology better. For now, however, he's synonymous with a "movement" - one based on a fatal flaw - that eulogises clips of cats falling down stairs, or really lame remixes.

For his part, Brett gracefully, and very charitably, concluded that "more clarity" was needed from the Commonistas if they were to make more headway with authors, songwriters, and composers who appreciate a bob or two for their labour. It would help clear up such misunderstandings, he said. But until it did, it was a "sad mirage" that offered false hopes.

Irish film maker Keith Donnell stepped up to the microphone, and congratulated both debaters for their presence:

"...And I'd like to congratulate Lawrence Lessig for his bravery...in coming here and making such an unsustainable argument," he said.

"By allowing people to redefine copyright he's playing into the hands of people who over the years have tried to redefine copyright - so people like me don't get paid." ®

Editor's note: This article has been edited in order to correct a number of errors in the transcription of our notes of Professor Lessig's presentation. Broadly, it is our opinion that these corrections do not alter our representation of Professor Lessig's views, nor of the debate that unfolded in Brussels. A recording of the panel has been presented on Professor Lessig's blog, and we urge interested readers to compare this with our account of the event.

In the first two instances referred to by Professor Lessig there, we paraphrased Professor Lessig's views, but this incorrectly appeared in direct speech. We're sorry for this, and have fixed it. A reference by Professor Lessig to "collection societies" (of authors) was truncated to "authors". Professor Lessig also notes that while his reference to a "second class of creators" was faithfully reported, a further reference to "secondary class" also appeared in quotation marks. A reader could reasonable conclude that the "secondary" reference was made by Lessig. We find Lessig's distinction here between classes of creators to be eccentric and arbitrary, but we're happy to remove the quotation marks.

Prior to the panel, Professor Lessig again failed to accept an offer from us to clarify his views over dinner, at The Register's expense, as he has declined similar offers from us for the past three years.

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