Samuelson and Lessig's Free Culture talks: why copyright needs fixing and how to do it

Larry Lessig and Pam Sameulson gave barn-burning talks at this year's Free Culture summit at Berkeley -- I'm especially interested in Pam's talk. She's one of the top scholars of American copyright law and when she says there's something wrong with it, people sit up and listen:
I think one reason that it’s really important to think about copyright reform is because really pretty much every 40 years there has been copyright reform. So it’s time to really get that conversation started. And a lot of what we need to do is move to better principals about what a good copyright law would look like. It shouldn’t be as long – current copyright law is 200 pages long, 300 if you buy certain editions – and it’s too complicated. I can’t make my way through about half the provisions because they’re so incomprehensible. Maybe it was ok that copyright law was really abstruse at a time when the only people who needed to know anything about it were the industry lawyers who essentially were mediating these kind of inter-industry disputes. If they knew what it meant and nobody else did, who cared, as long as it just applied to them. But now that copyright law is really affecting and regulating our daily activities, we the people deserve a copyright law that’s simple, that’s fair, that’s balanced, and that gets us to a much better way of thinking about what good role copyright law can play.

Like some of the earlier speakers, I worry a lot about the implications of copyright for the activities that all of you do on a daily basis. There’s a really fun essay that was written by one of my colleagues in Copyright, John Tehranian, entitled, “Infringement Nation.” What John does in the article is go through the average day of a professor (seems to be modeled on himself). He does a bunch of stuff on the internet, he goes to the gym, he works out with his tattoos on his shoulders, he plays loud music in his car, and he sings Happy Birthday to people in a restaurant, and by the time he’s finished with his average day, he counts 83 acts of plausible infringement, because some sort of copying was done. And he multiplies that by the maximum statutory damages – $150,000 per infringed work. So, just in one day, even without any kind of peer-to-peer file-sharing going on, John calculates 12.5 million dollars of potential liability for those ordinary infringing acts, and then of course, that’s just for one day, so if you multiply it times the number of days in a year, you end up with 4.5 billion dollars in potential statutory damages for an average day of your life, and that’s only one person. So, when you think about that, you sort of say, “Boy this thing is really out of whack! We really need to get into a better shape.” I could give you dozens of other examples, and actually some of the other people here today have given you other examples, but I want to concentrate instead on how to think about a reform landscape for copyright.

Free Culture Conference 2008: Larry Lessig on Remix Culture , Free Culture Conference 2008: Pamela Samuelson on Copyright Reform (Thanks, Sra!)


  1. “you end up with 4.5 billion dollars in potential statutory damages for an average day of your life, and that’s only one person. “

    If only we could make those freeloaders pay, that pesky credit crisis would be solved within a week.

  2. I would like to set up a personal blog and post funny articles for friends to see, I’m just worried that if I include picture images I could be held in copyright violation – even if I include the link to the original content site.

    This has a lot of people scared enough not to join the blogging community. Every site seems to have different rules about what can be shared and how. It seems so confusing.

    How do others get by with this? Do they need to get permission from every site they post to or are they granted some type of press freedom?

    I haven’t seen any really clear information on this for the layperson to use. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  3. Studmoose,

    Google “fair use”, or at least read the Wikipedia article. (That’s a capital G in “Google” to prevent trademark dilution ;] ). Fair Use may not be 100% clear, but it gives you tools to figure out when it’s ok to use someone else’s copyrighted works in limited ways.

    Try to use stuff with Creative Commons licenses. Those allow anyone to use the content as long as certain conditions are made (such as saying who created it, not using it for commercial gain… A website with ads is ok, generally, even if it is somewhat for-profit). There are search engines out there that index CC-licensed stuff. Much of Flickr is CC-licensed. Etc.

    Remember that the DMCA says that when a website hosts content that violates someone’s IP rights, that someone can demand that the website (i.e. you) take down the content within 24h, and if you do take it down, you’re not liable. (This of course leads to the use of bogus DMCA takedown notices as a form of censorship, but that’s another story).

    And when companies release text and images as press releases, and/or say that certain copyrighted content may be used by the press when discussing the thing in question, I don’t think bloggers get in trouble for using that stuff, since it gives the company more coverage.

  4. I should mention, IANAL (although I have done some IP-related legal research for the lawyers of… a large internet company that starts with a G. A capital G).

    And I meant to say “certain conditions are met” in the CC paragraph.

  5. Can we have a link to John Tehranian’s “Infringement Nation”? Or is is behind JSTOR or another paywall, ironically enough?


    I searched as you suggested. states “Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered “fair,” such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research…. The distinction between “fair use” and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission…. The safest course is always to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material.”

    That being said, should I set the blog up as a new blog, a parody blog or comment/critique blog?

    The PeaPod Tent listing above this posting links to Amazon. Would permission be required for that picture or is it a news / comment item?
    Granted Amazon is trying to sell some stuff and would like the advertising, but this seems to be a semi-income generating site and that raises the “Commercial use” issue? Or, as you say, “it gives the company more coverage.”

    Wow! This seems like one giant landmine that one could step on.

  7. The other interesting option is to multiply those 83 acts of plausible infringement by the minimum possible punishment. That would be $750 each, for a total of $62,250.

    That’s a decent annual wage.

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