Lessig’s call for a “simple blanket license” in Remix

by on December 1, 2008 · 36 comments

Lessig Remix coverI’m finishing up Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig’s latest book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy and wanted to make a brief comment about his call for a “simple blanket license” to solve online music piracy.

Overall, I thought Prof. Lessig made a good case regarding the benefits of “remix culture” and why copyright law should leave breathing room for the various derivative works of amateur creators. On the other hand, Lessig still too often blurs remix culture with “ripoff culture” (i.e., those who aren’t out to create anything new but instead just take something without paying a penny for it).

To solve that latter problem, Lessig again endorses a proposal that William Fisher, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others have made for collective licensing of all online music, but he fails to drill down into the devilish details. He says, for example, that “by authorizing a simple blanket licensing procedure, whereby users could, for a low fee, buy the right to freely file-share” we could “decriminalize file sharing.” (p. 271)

I respect the fact that Lessig is at least acknowledging a problem exists and proposing a solution to it, but the collective licensing approach will be anything but “simple” in practice. As I have pointed out here before, collective licensing proposals and efforts almost always become compulsory in practice.  They inevitably involve government mandates to determine (1) who pays in, (2) how much they pay in, as well as (3) how much gets paid out and, (4) who gets the money.

That final part is the most challenging: How do we determine who should get paid what under a blanket licensing system for the Net? What formula shall we use to determine why one artists gets more than another? After all, counting downloads won’t be simple, and it can be gamed. Lessig says that “there are plenty of ways that we might tag and trace particular uses of copyrighted material.” (p. 272)  Really? If that was the case today, then we would have a fully functioning copyright clearance and compensation system in place already. But “tagging and tracing” is easier said than done. The fact is, the same complexities we face trying to enforce such tagging and tracing systems under the present copyright system would be present in any compulsory licensing system.

And there are still more questions to consider about collective licensing. For example, how do we restrict free-riders who attempt to evade the blanket charge the rest of us are paying? How would we deal with ISPs who refused to play along and embed such a fee in their monthly bills? (Of course, if the fee was reasonable, many ISPs would likely be willing to pass it along to their customers in exchange for freedom from future copyright liability. After all, some ISPs have already expressed an unwillingness to play the role of copyright cop, so they might initially look favorably on a blanket licensing system. But they might still need to engage in some filtering efforts to determine who is downloading what).

There are many thorny questions about the fairness of imposing a blanket fee on all online users even if they don’t listen to any music, or those who would be offended at the prospect of being forced to pay for certain types of music (think of grandmas paying for gangsta rap). On the opposite end of the equation, there’s the question of fairness to artists who may not want to surrender the rights to their musical creations at government-set terms and rates. Finally, what about other types of media creators and distributors? If we’re going to have a blanket fee for online music, why not movies, television content, video games, and everything else?

Thus, while I appreciate Lessig’s argument in the conclusion of the book about “recognizing the limits of regulation,” it’s important to realize that collective / compulsory licensing introduces a different layer of regulatory complexity and that we will need to deal with many of the same challenges we’re trying to deal with under the existing copyright system. I would have liked to see Prof. Lessig explore these challenges in greater detail in Remix.

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