There are a lot of big ideas in Lawrence Lessig’s talk REMIX: How Creativity is Being Strangled by the Law and Chapters 2 and 9 of Lewis Hyde’s book Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership. Big ideas that are certainly related and relatable yet too numerous and too large for me to pin down and fully synthesize in this short blog post. What I will say, though, is that the focus in these works on the creations and not the creators concerns me. The big ideas in these works address the survival and freedom of creations, but what are we doing to address the survival and freedom of creators? What about the common of estovers—the right of subsistence—Hyde describes? The common of estovers meant that a commoner would not lack food, fuel, or shelter. If creators of culture have a “copyduty” obligation to make their work available to benefit the community in the commons, what obligation does the community have to ensure the well-being of the creator? Hyde brings up an idea from Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice that “…a basic form of inequality, if not tyranny, arises whenever one sphere of social life begins to command the others” (p. 222). How can we protect the cultural commoners from the tyranny of the need to earn to survive in a capitalistic economy?
In Common as Air Lewis Hyde states that “…our practices in regard to property fit us or unfit us for particular ways of being human” (p. 41). I would argue that current capitalist economic practices “unfit” us for being the types of humans that give away our labor for free. Grocery stores accept money in exchange for food—if you need to make money to feed yourself, how can you afford to give away your labor? How can people who concentrate their energies on creating art and ideas afford to buy land or houses if, as Hyde asserts, “…art and ideas, unlike land or houses, belong by nature to a cultural commons, open to all” (p. 214)? I wholly support making culture and knowledge freely accessible to all in a cultural commons, but how are those that contribute to the commons supposed to support themselves? Are creators of culture and knowledge expected to work a day job to buy groceries and pay rent and then work the night shift creating culture to give away for free? Energy is not limitless and mental fatigue is a real thing.
According to Lawrence Lessig’s talk REMIX: How Creativity is Being Strangled by the Law, creativity is being strangled by the law. I disagree. I mean, I agree with Lessig’s points and his argument, but saying the law is strangling creativity is like saying “guns kill people”. The truth is that people kill people using guns and capitalism strangles creativity using the law. To loosen the stranglehold copyright law has on creativity, Lessig and others created a set of alternative Creative Commons licenses, which give creators finer-grained control of how their works are made available or restricted for public use. I am concerned that we are distracted so much by the instrument used to commit the crime that we fail to see who’s holding it. As optimistic as the creation of things like Creative Commons licenses makes me about the possible existence of a cultural commons, I won’t be truly convinced of this possibility until I see the development of a creative commons economy. Hyde states that for the commons to endure, it must be protected from despotic dominion and the market. We must remember here that the commons is not just the land, but also the rights, customs, and the social structures governing these uses. If things like Creative Commons licenses loosen the grip of law on cultural creations, what equivalent do we have protecting the cultural commoners and their ways of interacting from the squeeze brought on by the need to survive in a capitalistic society?