“The past can survive only if it can beat out the future” (p. 142)

Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy by Laurence Lessig is a great and important book, one that should be read by anyone interested in the future of the Internet, culture and expression.

This book is a plea and an argument for a business model for culture and creativity, one in which supporters of the arts are willing to pay creators directly for their output. I’m not convinced. I’m also not not convinced.

Like the best non-fiction, this book engages you in an argument. I literally found myself periodically putting it down to have an imaginary conversation with Lessig, discussing and debating many of his points.

And he does make make a lot of very good points but a lot of his argument seems to rely on the good will of consumers of culture, their feeling of obligation towards creative people to support them directly in their efforts. On the other hand, it seems that it’s getting harder and harder to convince people to pay for cultural outputs. The recorded music industry is collapsing with newspapers and possibly journalism itself next. Magazine and book publishing are still relatively healthy as is Hollywood, but the same forces that affect those other industries will ultimatelyl transform them as well. It seems that people will still pay for unique artifacts and experiences, but the commodity culture industries (ie. those whose products are easily or potentially easily copied digitally) could have a challenge ahead of them.

There seems to be two problems: one, how to get consumers of culture to infuse money into the cultural economy and, two, how do creative people capture their fair share of that cash. Ok, there are three problems: how do intermediaries like publishers, editors and distributors, who can potentially add value to the process, also capture enough of the cash to continue in their roles.

Of course, any or all of the above constituencies could just be screwed. Change is happening. It can’t be ignored or avoided. The future will be different from the past and the present and not everyone who had a role in the past is guaranteed one in the future. What was once a valuable role or lucrative career can really just disappear from the landscape.

So, as a consumer of culture, I see very few scarcities around. I can find all the text, music and video I want without paying anything for any of it. What’s my incentive to infuse money into the cultural economy to pay for that intellectual property? Is quality worth paying for? Or is what’s available for free already of sufficiently high quality to make it “good enough” for my needs? (I’m playing devil’s advocate here…)

If consumers of culture refuse to spend money on it directly, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of opportunity for creators and intermediaries to capture much income.

Can providing unique artifacts (ie. Concert tshirts) and experiences (ie. Concerts) actually replace all the income that selling intellectual property once produced? After all, how many concert tshirts can one person buy?

And how can Laurence Lessig help us figure it all out?

The secret lies in something that he calls the hybrid economy. I’ve gone on long enough so I’m not going to try and summarize all of Lessig’s points. In the end, however, he imagines a copyright system that encourages and enables consumers of culture to support that culture easily and conveniently. Not out of a sense of coercion but out of a sense of fairness and equity, out of an understanding that creators need incentives to create not out of fear of the consequences of what would previously be thought of as piracy. This hybrid economy embraces the best of the commercial economy (ie. copyright) and the sharing economy (ie. the Internet).

Is Lessig too much of an idealist? Does he overestimate the generosity and fairness of human nature? Or is Chris Anderson right and free content will drive out anything that isn’t free, ultimately driving down the price of creative works to the lowest common denominator? The sharing economy completely supplanting the commercial economy. Is there a hybrid in the middle, a better view of human nature?

As you can tell from these confused and disjointed ramblings, with more questions than answers, I’m still grasping at the shape of these forces, trying to understand what the future may bring. I’m not convinced Lessig is right, although I hope he is.

Buy this book, it’s an extremely important contribution to the conversation about the future of creative expression. Send a little money Lessig’s way, it’s only fair. He deserves it. Also, read the book, think about the issues, argue every page and every point in your head with virtual versions of Lessig and Chris Anderson. I know that’s how I read the book — a very slow and deliberate reading experience with a lot of reflection and internal debate. This book is a true professional development growth experience.

This is a doubly important book for librarians concerned about the future of our collections — it’s continuing a conversation we need to have about what means to have a collection of content in the digital age. Needless to say, I can’t think of too many libraries that wouldn’t benefit from having a print copy of this book on their shelves. And a catalogue record that points to the CC-BY-NC licensed version too!

(What would I really like to see? Let’s lock Lessig and Anderson in a steel cage together and see who comes out the winner. Free or Fee or Hybrid. Andrew Keen can be the special guest referee.)

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