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Larry Lessig Shifts Focus; Delivers Final Lecture on Creative Content

Stanford University Law Professor Larry Lessig officially logged off the debate on copyright in the digital age with some parting words on the right to remix widely available creative content into newer, derivative works. His final lecture was titled the "Final Free Culture Talk."

Lessig, founder of the Law School's Center for Internet and Society, also used the occasion to announce that he has shifted his academic aim onto corruption in Washington. But to understand the connection between the fight against increasingly restrictive copyright law and the crusade against corruption in the nation's capital, Lessig had to provide the public with one last thing -- something that was altogether fitting, given his expertise on Internet matters: a link.

Not in the sense of an HTML string, although the keywords and letters projected onto the giant screen behind him to highlight his statements were often enclosed in angle brackets as if they were in code. The link Lessig provided -- to a packed Memorial Auditorium and a Canadian film crew documenting his signoff -- was an explanation of how the two issues overlap.

"Even if we solved this problem of free culture," by which Lessig meant the messy matter of copyright holders fighting for more control in an age when existing content such as music and movie clips are being blended into newer, derivative works, "there was a real problem here that remained."

The cause of that problem, Lessig said, is corruption. "Not in the form of quid pro quo bribes," he said, "but in influence that the money buys to access, to attention, and a consequent ignoring of the side that doesn't have the money. This is a corrupted process."

Lessig first announced this shift in focus in June 2007 through his blog, and said this new grassroots movement will eventually ask members of Congress and congressional candidates to commit to three core principles: abolishing earmarks, refusing money from lobbyists and political action committees, and promoting publicly financed campaigns.

He likened corruption in government to an addiction. Just as alcoholism can lead to the loss of an addict's family and job, the influence that money buys in government can blind lawmakers to major societal ills. "Many fundamental problems -- global warming, poverty, healthcare and even free culture -- none of these get solved until this corruption gets solved."

Standing on stage next to his laptop, Lessig clicked a remote to show slides that both illustrated his point and entertained the audience. Some of his newer material included news footage of President Bush that had been remixed into digital video clips set to songs by hip-hop artist Soulja Boy and John Lennon.

"It is what literacy increasingly is for our kids, a new generation who are building a different kind of democracy, building a different kind of culture, a culture we can think of as a read-write culture, returning culture to the way it has always been," Lessig said, "a culture where we participate in the creating and sharing of our culture."

Another update to his presentation was a slide of former President Ronald Reagan, who once called on an often-quoted passage to sum up his own thoughts on the dilemma of democracy. Lessig read that passage aloud as a way to explain why his focus is now on ending corruption in Washington:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy.

But the point that Reagan missed, Lessig said, was that the poor aren't the ones that get together and game the system. It's the rich, the ones who have the money to buy access into the political system and influence it in a way that delivers the outcomes they desire.

Before Lessig began his lecture, he was introduced by Joi Ito, a colleague and board chair of Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2001 that allows content creators to mark their works with varying degrees of freedom for use by others. The decal for Creative Commons is similar to that of the familiar mark of copyright, except that it has two C's inside a circle and is accompanied by the phrase "some rights reserved."

Through CC, authors, artists and educators can choose licenses that define whether a work may be used for commercial purposes, whether it may be modified and whether the modifier should be required to share alike derivative content. Lessig said millions have joined the movement, with licenses in more than 40 countries around the world.

"Larry, together with all of us whom he recruited, has changed the copyright debate from an academic, somewhat fringy conversation to a mainstream conversation that's happening in boardrooms today," Ito said. "As we run Creative Commons around this conversation, we realize that the thing that's holding us back is corruption."

In deciding to let Ito and others carry on the fight, Lessig said one reason he is moving on from copyright is that the tide of public opinion is increasingly toward the freer flow of content that advocates term "fair use."

But whereas progressive artists, musicians and social-networking sites have embraced the struggle and made it innately appealing to the masses, it's not so clear -- at least so early in Lessig's new journey -- that corruption will click as easily with the general public.

David Post, a law professor at Temple University and a friend of Lessig's for more than a decade, acknowledged that corruption isn't as catchy as mash-up music and videos. But he alluded to one part in Lessig's talk where he described how difficult it was at first to explain how the fight against increasingly restrictive copyright laws was worth supporting.

"Larry is very gifted at making something sexy that you might not think is sexy," said Post, who was in the audience for Lessig's lecture. "That's a different challenge than the free culture movement had, but not an insurmountable one."

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