Lawrence Lessig’s Dystopian Vision
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
In Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, Lawrence Lessig warns that the health of the "environment of creativity" has been endangered by the combination of changes in intellectual property law, increased concentration of media ownership and transformations in technology. Lessig maintains that what we face is akin to an environmental crisis, with the crucial difference being that cultural rather than physical resources are under siege. Curiously, though, the world depicted in Free Culture is at odds with Lessig's dystopian vision, for it is a vibrant place where technological innovation, creative endeavors, and public discussion of political issues flourish. To be sure, real problems exist, and addressing them will require a number of difficult determinations, including whether the hazards posed by new technologies outweigh their benefits and how best to ensure that property rights evolve to promote the public interest. Regrettably, however, Free Culture promises to be of little help in crafting useful solutions to these problems. In writing Free Culture, Lessig has set himself a high hurdle, namely to convince his readership that the saga of intellectual property in recent decades represents nothing less than a modern-day Miltonian epic: Paradise was lost when a property rights Eden was infested by the serpent of venal corporate interests, but might be regained through adherence to the reform program outlined in Free Culture. Lessig fails to clear this hurdle for the simple reason that, taken together, the stories he offers in support of his thesis tell a richer, more complicated, and ultimately more interesting tale than the one he has in mind.