Yesterday Berkeley played host to the annual Students for Free Culture conference. (Actually, the “unconference” continues today with further workshops.) Although I am a frequent attendee at all sorts of law and technology events, this one was fairly unique: instead of being a room stuffed with lawyers, it was full of artists and technologists, and lots and lots of concerned students.
Even as someone familiar most of these issues I still learned new things. Like from musicologist Marc Perlman some examples of how song “mash-ups” have been created throughout time. In fact, he noted, within Judaism mash-ups may even be considered a mitzvah. Using the example of the song “Maor Tzur,” today sung to the melody of an old German hymn, he explained that Judaism believes that everything created contains sparks of divinity, and by putting sacred lyrics to secular songs it’s seen as liberating those sparks.
Then from law professor Pamela Samuelson I learned that the 1976 copyright law revision, still is largely in effect today, was mostly drafted in the 1960s and based on studies from the 1950s. (Modern U.S. copyright law always feels tremendously dated, but I hadn’t previously realized how very dated it was.)
Because there were, of course, lawyers at this event. There had to be. I remember back when SCO was menacing the free software community with its baseless copyright lawsuits going to an event where its representatives presented its case to a room full of technology students. The students’ distress was palpable: what they were being told about the law sounded so intuitively wrong to them, and threatened them with enormous liability for all the work and innovation they were doing, but as non-lawyers they had no ability to resist or navigate around it. There is definitely a need for benevolent lawyers equally concerned about how wrong modern IP law feels to be there to at minimum explain how the law works, and then help shape resistance to its defects. For resistance is important. Like Jason Schultz said, “We’re seeing a shift in the way good law can be made.” When something about the way the law is being wielded feels wrong, standing up to it can often make it right.
Sometimes it takes the lawyers to show that it is possible. As keynote speaker Larry Lessig noted, “The weirdest thing being a lawyer is that in law schools we spend all this time questioning the law, but people outside the profession treat the law as if it’s God’s given word that we can’t do anything about and just have to learn to live with.” But that’s just not true. “Law is changeable… It has to be challenged, and if it can’t defend itself it has to be blown up.”