NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Artistic Innovation or Theft?

January 9, 2002

Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford University, argues that intellectual property protections are being used to stifle artistic creation and technical innovations.

Among the examples being used to support that view:

  • Lawyers for Margaret Mitchell's estate almost succeeded in banning "The Wind Done Gone," a slave-centered recasting of "Gone With the Wind," on the grounds that it was theft.
  • Amateur fan sites for "The Simpsons" that post unauthorized images from the show received cease-and-desist letters from Fox, and a noncommercial Web page designed to teach guitarists the chord sequences to pop tunes was shut down by the recording company EMI.
  • Napster, the service that facilitated trading of MP3 music files, was shut down because the recording industry took it to court for facilitating theft.

But Napster made almost every recording ever made instantly accessible. Such a great idea, Lessig argues, should be championed by an open society -- even if it threatens entrenched interests like the recording industry.

Lessig admits that, "A great deal of creativity would not exist without the protections of the law."

  • But he argues that patents and copyrights should have short, renewable 5-year terms instead of the current system of 90- to 150-year terms.
  • And paying a licensing fee should secure unfettered access to another artist's work.

However, some the strongest objections to unauthorized and uncompensated copying of artistic creations have come from the creators themselves. Metallica, for example, helped lead the fight to shut down Napster. And Star Wars creator George Lucas threatened to sue anyone who set up a Web page permitting downloads of "The Phantom Menace."

Source: Daniel Zalewski, "Thinking These Thoughts Is Prohibited," review of Lawrence Lessig, "The Future of Ideas," Book Review, New York Times, January 6, 2002.


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