Response to Two Economies

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Lawrence Lessig is a totemic figure in the free culture movement. His three books on the subject (Code, The Future of Ideas, Free Culture) have helped to open up and focus the debate about copyright, technology and ethics. But recent personal blog entries and letters to the Creative Commons community have marked a radical change in direction. We'll argue that his "two economies" thesis is dangerously flawed, and that it cannot define CC's purpose.

A very general outline of the thesis can be found in this letter to the CC community, which was inspired by this weblog entry on the same subject. In brief, Lessig suggests that there are two economies in which culture operates, the "traditional commercial economy" and the "sharing economy"; in the former people create to make money, whilst in the latter amateurs create for the love of what they do. His examples are Wikipedia and YouTube. CC's core aim is to support the sharing economy, which shouldn't displace the traditional commercial economy, and to make sure that the two economies can interact. In other words, protect amateurs who share freely, but make sure they can go professional.

The two economies thesis is flawed because, whilst one could make a distinction between amateur sharing and professional commercial economies, such a distinction wouldn't map cleanly onto the real world.

Amateur creators may cover their costs, and professionals may share some of their work freely as part of their business model. There aren't two logically distinct personalities or modes that people inhabit. Historically, people have financed their creative activities in a great number of ways. The "traditional commercial economy", which we presume to mean big media in developed countries, is but one business model. People who would identify themselves as amateur may make some money selling their work, and their ability to do so may or may not depend upon copyright.

The amateur/professional distinction is culturally specific, and the way that Lessig applies it to his argument is US-centric, and even corporate-centric within the US, which of course has a strong folk tradition. To view culture through this framework is to accept the most base premises of the media cartels, completely distorting it. The arts, and culture generally, are far too broad a topic to be conceptualised in terms of the dichotomy Lessig presents. The intersection of culture, property law and technology is equally broad, and the two economies thesis is as worryingly blunt.

There are two ways of looking at Lessig's argument. Either he is trying to crowbar amateurs into the media cartels without them being exploited, or he is trying to make those cartels share a little more. CC cannot make bad net.poets any richer by simply CC-ing their work, gaining a reputation and then being picked up by a media cartel. Many people already do this without CC licenses anyway, and those that fail to break into the big industry are left as amateur sharers. Both aims are, perhaps, worthwhile, but they limit the scope of free culture to an extent that betrays the vision laid out in his previous work.

The thesis also betrays the vision that Lessig laid out in Free Culture, because it establishes a non-commercial permission culture. It's an elegant way to protect a public sphere that allows people to make money, but it doesn't help artists whose work depends upon the creative recombination of existing works. The non-commercial clause has an extremely broad application and, without any tools to streamline the process, artists become entangled in terrifying legal complexity if they try to mix a large number of non-commercially licensed pieces into their work. Lessig still finds the idea of a permission culture compelling, but it is far more narrow than the open-minded vision of cultural freedom that we share.

Lessig makes much of the ethics of Web 2.0 projects and how CC licenses fit this. But putting people into the straightjacket of the amateur/professional dichotomy, and prioritising the creator's ability to move from amateur to professional, neglects the rights and abilities of users (a category that includes creators). Much of the promise of Web 2.0 projects lies in the creators returning more value to the users; by breaking such a clean-cut distinction down, everyone can both consume and create. It's also worth noting that the big winners in the Web 2.0 industry have so far been the entrepreneurs, not the individuals whose work they exploit.

Identifying the free culture movement with the sharing or reputation economy is a mistake. For many, sharing, reputation and money are the products of rights, they are benefits that follow from our decisions about matters of ethical principle. For others they are but one dimension of cultural activity, along with consuming, learning and producing; free culture should be concerned with each of them. More radical communities are interested in the intersection of art, copyright and critical theory, and would find Lessig's narrow conceptualisation completely alien. One of CC's great achievements has been to focus the attention of an incredibly broad range of individuals and organisations. Making a narrow identity between free culture and an amateur sharing economy alienates CC from a broad base of support.

The task for CC isn't to fence an amateur, sharing economy off and protect it, whilst making sure that people can go professional. Rather their task is in reducing the need for people to use copyright restrictively, whether because restrictive practice is thought to make financial, artistic, technical, organisational or any other kind of sense.

The free culture movement requires a diverse community open to debate and innovation, and a figurehead organisation that can reflect this diversity and innovation. Lessig's recent CC letters suggest that he wants CC to instead go down a narrow conservative path that will do little to challenge the basic assumptions of copyright extremists. If this happens then CC will lose much of its credibility and status within the communities that have, so far, supported it.