TED: An argument for legal digital remixing

MONTEREY, Calif.--Attendees here at TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design confab) were abuzz Thursday morning about many things: a moving speech on carbon reduction from tech venture capitalist John Doerr; a conspiracy theory about "four in the morning" in art from poet Rives, and even a silly sing-song from humorist Julia Sweeney and singer .

But one high point for the artists and designers at TED was a talk from Lawrence Lessig, Stanford University law professor and chair of the Creative Commons project. He argued that the advent of user-generated content on sites like YouTube and MySpace is a throwback to the beginning of 20th century, when people still traded and developed songs through a kind of oral tradition. To prove his point, Lessig told the story of American composer John Philip Sousa, who in 1906 warned Congress that "talking machines" would ruin the artistic development of music in this country. That's because the machines would turn people into consumers, not creators.

Today, Sousa is regaining his world, according to Lessig.

"The most significant thing to recognize with the Internet is that there's a revival of these vocal cords," via user-generated content, Lessig said. "We're celebrating amateur culture, not celebrating amateurish culture. People produce (content) for the love of what they're doing, not for the money.

"You have to recognize what your kids are doing today. Young people are singing the songs of the old days--they're taking the songs of the day and remixing them to make them something different," he said.

He emphasized the point--and made people laugh--by showing remixed videos like one from Javierprato.com, which depicts Jesus singing the Gloria Gaynor song "I will survive."

He cautioned that the law hasn't greeted the Sousa revival with much common sense. Rather, he sees a growing extremism from both sides of the debate. "One side builds new technologies to automatically take down any content that has copyrighted content in it, whether there's an argument for fair use. And there's a generation that rejects the notion of copyright--it's something to be ignored and fought. Extremism begets extremism, and both sides are just wrong."

More than a business solution, Lessig urged the audience to think about how kids today are growing up.

"We watch TV; they make TV. Technology has made them different. We can't make kids passive again; we can only make them pirates, and is that good?" Lessig asked.

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