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
    Wesley Parish, 30 Apr 2008 @ 7:18am

    "literally" - common rhetoric absurdity

    I've come up against that sort of thing in the past, and I thought it was a cheap rhetorical trick the world was better off without.

    Getting down to the nitty-gritty of the issue, is "intellectual property" a real property?

    Perhaps the question should be refocused to "what is this "real" property everybody's talking about?"

    In an article in the NZ Business Review some years ago, the writer said the thing holding NZ Maori back, when they had recovered their property from the NZ Government, was that it was land-in-common, or if you take the viewpoint that the tribes were proto-states, it was proto-state land that had not yet been parcelled up per family and used - and for all we know and should care, handed back to the proto-state until someone else had a need for it. The proto-states, until they were forcibly prevented from doing so, or otherwise pacified, held on to their land by main force.

    According to the article mentioned, the Maori tribes had to accept the idea of "private property" - ie, the idea that people could "own" stuff in perpetuity without necessarily having any real connection with it - before they would prosper.

    So, from an anthropological perspective, what is this "real property right" that is under discussion?

    It is a cultural construct, derived from state monopolies, which it would appear, derive directly from European feudal theory that all power in a given piece of territory derives directly from a sovereign who is independent of his people as regards the source of his authority and power.

    If I write something, and have based it on my own experiences and frame of mind, then I should not require the state to tell me it is mine, any more than I require the state to tell me the secretions and excrement of my body is mine. After all, the state had nothing to do with its production.

    And that is where I find the likes of this Progress & Freedom Foundation so ... fascinating, so feudal. They rely on the state implicitly to define and enforce an abstract right against others. This idea that the state has the right or duty to enforce rigid law against an activity that has traditionally - ie, throughout recorded human history, just read the latest Shakespeare Complete Works' forewords, introductions, etc, to get an idea - been freeflowing and dependent on reputation rather than force ... I find neither freedom nor progress in it.

    At the minimum, I expect the state to be an impartial arbitrator, not the feudal sovereign - but that is where the "intellectual property is "real" property" takes us.

    Oh, for what it's worth, read "Road Belong Cargo"
    for the description of a world where ownership of ideas was held, and held rigidly, and notice how difficult it was for Yali to upgrade his ideas, no matter how hard he tried.

    Hate to tar you with a very very old brush, Tom, but if it sticks, enjoy it. You'll make the US the Cargo Cult Capital of the Word.

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