opinion

The Outer Limits of Pornography

In his latest book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Stanford Law School professor and Obama transition team consultant Lawrence Lessig makes yes another appeal for a massive overhaul of copyright law. He fervently believes we need to embrace the economic potential of the digital age while also preventing the further criminalization of succeeding generations of content users.

The "remix" phenomenon in the title refers to the incorporative ways in which digital content is taken and used — often by young artists — to create original works. The most common uses that come to mind are music remixes, of course, but increasingly people are taking video and mashing it up to create new works that also incorporate music and ideas "borrowed" from others. The field is a burgeoning realm of creativity, and Lessig is worried that everyone currently working in it is also living with the fact that they are a criminal. Few, if any, of them pre-license the digital content they use as their inspiration and raw material.

One of Lessig's points with respect to how we should think of remix or mash-up culture is to compare it with how we traditionally think about using the written word. No one, for instance, would consider asking for prior permission from an author before quoting from his or her article or book. We take for granted the right to "mash-up" the written word. Lessig's point is that young people think of music and video as previous generations think about text. It has essentially morphed from content to language, and Lessig is saying that we do not want to, and ultimately cannot, restrain its usage through the use of laws that criminalize every time we make a copy, even unwittingly, which is just about a hundred times every day.

He also advocates for copyright laws that help promote "hybrid" economies, by which he means "a commercial entity that aims to leverage value from a sharing economy, or... a sharing economy that builds a commercial entity that better supports its sharing aim." (BTW, I did not contact Lessig before quoting from his book.) The paradigm example of a sharing economy is Wikipedia and its many offshoots, which exist and thrive because of the unremunerated contributions of many people. Paradigmatic commercial economies online are many, of course, and include Netflix, Amazon and Google, to name a few.

A hybrid economy combines the two. Some examples Lessig uses of successful hybrids include Craig's List, Flickr, Dogster and YouTube. In the adult sphere, we have our own hybrids. The adult chat board, Go Fuck Yourself, is in fact a hybrid economy, in which its value is derived from the active participation of people, many of whom derive no direct revenue from their participation. That is not to say that they do not derive any value from their participation, but that the value is often indirect and personal, and not quantifiable. This value dynamic is true of all shared and hybrid economies, however.

GFY itself, of course, derives direct revenue from the site, and has incorporated increasing subsets of revenue into the model. It remains to be seen if this commercialization throws off the balance necessary to sustain its collective appeal. All current hybrids are in fact experiments in finding that balance. Alienate your contributors and you could find them fleeing to spaces that better meet their community requirements.

Artists making mash-ups or remixed content using porn, and the extent to which the industry should care, will be the subject of a future column. Adult entertainment may be a special case.

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