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Free Ride: Disney, Fela Kuti and Google's war on copyright

Lawrence Lessig's work 'isn't worthy of a Harvard prof'

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Google and the academics

Q: There's a whole chapter on Google, which if people aren't familiar with it, might come as a bit of a shock.

Levine: There's a popular narrative and that says Google is cool – and it's a very coherent story. There are even parts of it that are true. What I wanted to do in the book is a factual counter-narrative so people can compare them side by side.

The music industry certainly lobbies for things that aren't good for the public. But at least you know the RIAA is a lobby. And the BPI. They're not boy scouts, but they're forthright about what they're doing.

Google is not forthright. They give money to the EFF, Public Knowledge, and to all these other groups, but they're not very honest about what they're doing. You can say term extension is a consumer issue, but the way Public Knowledge talks, you'd think cable TV for less money is a constitutional right. It's not. You have no right to watch World Cup soccer. That's crazy.

'Harvard and Stanford should be ashamed of themselves. It's not serious academic work'

Some of this is really the fault of journalists. Public Knowledge declares its income on its website but journalists don't pick up on it. So it is described as a "consumer rights group" when "consumer rights group funded by technology companies" or "group that lobbies for consumer rights and technology companies" would be more accurate.

Now if you look at the academics – I write about Professor Lessig but it could be William Patry or Tim Wu – a lot of their work is really shoddy. Wu writes about the movie business, but he doesn't understand how films take in money. Lessig also gets a lot of details wrong. Now, either he's not smart enough to get these details right, or he's being deceptive. I would say he's smart enough.

He writes about how Disney couldn't make its classic animated movies today because of copyright law. But there's no evidence for that. Walt Disney licensed stories to make films. He licensed the story for Bambi, he licensed the story for Dumbo, he licensed the story for 101 Dalmatians, and many others. That process is exactly the same as it is today. The Brothers Grimm stories would have been in the public domain even under today's copyright term – which I think is way too long, by the way.

Lessig also says how copyright has expanded to cover characters. But that came from judicial decisions, not statute. That wasn't the result of lobbying. You can say the courts interpreted it wrongly – but it's nonsense to say it was lobbying. It's unbelievable to me he's considered a serious academic.

Q: Sousa is another example Lessig likes to use. Sousa complained about "infernal machines", phonographs, and refused to be recorded. But he changed his mind, which Lessig never tells us ...

Levine: Sousa was the Metallica of his day. His songs were being recorded and he was not being compensated. He objected. Like Metallica he phrased his objection in a very poor way – but musicians aren't lawyers. Sousa said, "I don't like the technology, I prefer people to sing songs from songbooks." He was getting paid for songbooks, of course. But once Sousa was being paid for his records, you can see his attitude turn around.

Lessig, who is supposed to be such a scholar, gets it wrong – it's appalling. Harvard and Stanford should be ashamed of themselves. It's not serious academic work. It's not worthy of a Harvard professor.

Americans also tend to assume the whole world is under United States law. But you're talking about a specific Anglo American tradition. I grew up under it and I like it. But there are other countries in the world, the French in particular, who have a very different tradition of copyright. That includes strong moral rights for authors.

Lessig will write these books of his about copyright but never once mention these other traditions – I think that's wrong. You can make a case that in the continental tradition, you have a right NOT to be remixed. Should that be there? I don't think so, personally. But the idea you don't mention moral rights in a book about copyright is dishonest.

Q: But the academics don't need corporate sponsorship to say what they say. Wouldn't they say it anyway? They're fully signed up to the belief system.

Levine: I think Lessig is sincere about his desire to make the world a better place, and he wants to reduce corruption in Washington. But he has made some compromises that make it hard to take him seriously. He's not the guy to do that.

I will say he was tremendously courteous in answering some aggressive questions. I don't have a bad thing to say about him personally.

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