The Smear Campaign Against Larry Lessig And Free Culture

from the getting-nasty dept

You may recall that I've had my run-ins in the past with the incredibly misnamed Progress & Freedom Foundation. While I tend to think that Adam Theirer does okay work for them, almost every other report that comes out of the "think tank" seems highly questionable. We haven't heard much from them lately on intellectual property rights -- perhaps since two of their most outspoken folks on that topic (Patrick Ross and James DeLong) moved on. However, it looks like they've found someone new to drum up ridiculous arguments on intellectual property issues. If you don't recall, PFF is the group that has claimed that fair use harms innovation, that net neutrality is theft, and that open spectrum harms innovation (obviously WiFi was a huge problem). The most amazing thing to me, though, is that the PFF positions itself as a "libertarian" "free markets" think tank that thinks there should be less government regulation. But... anything having to do with intellectual property or spectrum, and suddenly all those libertarian statements go out the window.

Given all of that history, it's still rather amazing to read its newly released report on how the "Free Culture" movement, as explained by Larry Lessig, is really a "quasi-socialist" movement. Reading the full paper, you get a sense of how Washington DC works. It's a pure smear job that takes Lessig quotes out of context for ultimate impact and fills the rest with ad hominem and totally unsupported attacks. I certainly don't agree with everything that Lessig has to say -- and I particularly disagree with some of his policy recommendations. But there's simply no way to read Lessig's work and come to the conclusions in this paper if you are being intellectually honest. You can disagree with his conclusions. You can disagree with his reasoning -- but to paint what he has to say as a celebration of communism or socialism is simply a smear tactic and a political hack attack.

What becomes clear as you read the attack is that the author, Tom Sydnor, simply read through Lessig's works in search of sentences that could be taken out of context in order to paint Lessig as a secret socialist/communist. It's hard to see how that's "scholarship." It's not worth refuting each and every statement here, but we'll give a few simple examples. First, Sydnor claims that Lessig "demonizes" property owners. Actually, Sydnor claims that Lessig "literally demonizes property owners." Unless Lessig is turning property owners into demons, then I'd have to say that Sydnor doesn't understand what "literally" means. But, more to the point, this is a rhetorical trick by Sydnor, which is the basis of nearly his entire paper, where he repeatedly assumes that intellectual property is no different than tangible property. This is a fabrication. There is no reason to ignore the very real differences between the two unless you're trying to unfairly and dishonestly paint someone as supporting something they have not.

While making fun of Lessig (Sydnor snidely accuses Lessig of "name calling" before referring to Lessig as a "hypocritical demagogue" -- kettle, pot, etc.), Sydnor points out that Lessig "analogizes property rights to the pesticide DDT." If you're playing along in the home game, Sydnor is pulling this from page 129 in Lessig's book Free Culture. Lessig's actual point, which is quite valid and interesting is that DDT was originally designed to serve a good purpose, but it was only later that it was realized that it had negative unintended consequences. This isn't "demonizing property rights" as Sydnor implies. It's merely pointing out that even those with the best of intentions (the makers of DDT or the creators of copyright law) may not realize the negative consequences of their actions, and how those negative consequences may outweigh the positive consequences.
"No one set out to destroy the environment. Paul Muller certainly did not aim to harm any birds. But the effort to solve one set of problems produced another set which, in the view of some, was far worse than the problems that were originally attacked. Or more accurately, the problems DDT caused were worse than the problems it solved, at least when considering the other, more environmentally friendly ways to solve the problems that DDT was meant to solve."
If someone can explain how that's somehow demonizing property rights, I've got a job for you as a paid shill in DC. Instead, it's making a valid point that isn't demonizing anything -- most certainly not property rights. You can go through the rest of Sydnor's piece, and each and every time you'll notice he does one of two things: he conflates copyright with tangible property or he takes statements out of context to prove his point. He's also not beyond ridiculous hyperbole. In pointing to a rather reasonable quote from Lessig about why we should be interested in seeing if other systems can provide better outcomes, Sydnor brushes off all other systems of copyright by claiming:
"But during the last century, humanity conducted many vast experimental investigations of the relative merits of these "different property systems and the freedoms each allowed." Those experiments were run by well-intended people who sincerely believed that replacing systems of private property with "different systems" would improve the material and spiritual well-being of humanity. During those experiments, millions were murdered and billions were impoverished and enslaved.
Hyperbole much, Tom? Sydnor, once again, is equating copyright to tangible property (missing the irony that copyright -- a government granted monopoly -- seems a lot more closely aligned with the centralized governments of the former socialist nations than a system that relies on the free market). He then cuts off any questions about looking for a more reasonable system than copyright (which is a monopoly right, not a property right) by suggesting that any other system leads to "millions murdered" and "billions impoverished and enslaved." It's quite a leap. If there was any left, this paper destroys any credibility on pretty much anything coming out of PFF these days. It's the worst kind of political smear tactic.

Filed Under: free culture, larry lessig, politics, smear campaign, think tanks, tom sydnor
Companies: progress and freedom foundation

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  1. identicon
    mjr1007, 4 May 2008 @ 7:44pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Good job Mike

    Mike wrote:
    I'm at a conference so don't have time to respond fully, but a few quick points:

    mjr1007 wrote:
    It's not clear what's “not so”. Are you claiming that you really can't cite if mood strikes you?

    Mike replied:
    No, the "not so" was in reference to the claim that I chose not to defend a certain position because (you imply) I cannot. I did so because I don't have the time -- and when I do defend my position you tend to take my points out of context, so we go around in circles.

    mjr1007 replied::
    Honestly, it has to take less time to actually cite something if there is in fact something to cite then to go round and round in circles. The old “not enough time” rhetoric is one of the weakest responses you could make.

    mjr1007 wrote:
    I find it curious that you've never to publish in a pier reviewed journal. Was it because you never submitted an article or is it because it was never accepted?

    Mike replied:
    Never submitted.

    mjr1007 replied::
    I suspect there is a good reason why you never submitted.

    mjr1007 wrote:
    Actually it does answer your first question which was “why 11 cents”. The number was picked with absolutely no market data whatsoever. It's what is called a first level approximation or a back of the envelope calculation. It was meant to be illustrative. It maintained the acts revenue while decreasing the cost to consumers by 9X. 3 cents may very well be a better price then 11, both are far below the 99 cents per track that Itunes was charging last I looked

    Mike replied:
    The first question was rhetorical. The point was to illustrate how silly it is for anyone to set the price. Let the market set the price. And the market will tell you the price should be zero.

    mjr1007 replied::
    Mike did you just not get the whole back of the envelope thing. It was illustrative, not definitive. Really Mike, sometimes I wonder.

    mjr1007 wrote:
    It's nice that you said that any one of them isn't perfect for everyone, that's definitely a start.
    Lets look at the details of your examples, first artistshare explained (from their website)

    Mike replied:
    Going through and nitpicking isn't the point. That's why I said that none of them are perfect for everyone. The *point* is that you claimed that there were no other scarcities. I showed you a bunch of scarcities, and even showed you bands making money off of those scarcities. In other words, you were wrong. There are tons of business models that focus on giving away the infinite, and charging for the scarcities.

    Your nitpicks miss this point over and over again. If I had more time I'd point out why you're incorrect on each one, but I'm afraid I need to run to dinner now.

    But the point stands, despite your nitpicks: those are all business models that focus on giving away the music itself and charging for a scarcity. For every time you claim it won't work or it won't scale, someone has already proven you wrong.

    mjr1007 replied::
    Mike, your going from one weak response to another, are you really going for the nitpicking rhetoric. This is so unbelievably lame. You would never have let that jerk (IMHO) Sydnor get away with a nitpicking defense. I can't believe your trying something that weak. Really this is almost as bad as the 0300 effect.

    OK let go through it, for those who might not see through this.

    What you call nitpicking I call detailed analysis. As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details”.

    The problem with your writing is give away the abundant and the charge for the scarce. Sorry just can't bring my self to call it infinite. The problem with that is all of your examples are either examples of live performances or things that are abundant. Mike, if everything is abundant then how does one ever make a living. Everything is given away. You must be using that magic wand that Schrubya keeps talking about. Your examples were just more of the same. Many of them included charging for CDs, DVDs, and downloads. All things which should be abundant. Getting the fans involved before the CD is produced, helps defray the production cost, but it doesn't explain how one goes about making a living, except by touring, which is a tough life. A small fee for the musician(s) for selling the music seems like it would help a lot of struggling folks out. You can't pay your bills with publicity, which is all giving away music does.

    Your example of people like NIN making money was for letting fans set their price for downloads. Some payed some didn't. The point is they got lots of publicity, and lot's of money for this stunt and it doesn't seem like their going to do it again. Since they actually made money from downloads it seems not only to not prove your point but to actually disprove your point.

    If you actually have an idea that isn't a stunt and will work state it clearly and with citations. Otherwise your just driving traffic to your site. Your beginning to sound like that Sydnor guy, only on a different topic.

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