[Paleopsych] NYT: (Lessig) Exploring the Right to Share, Mix and Burn

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Sat Apr 9 17:08:25 UTC 2005

Arts > Music > Exploring the Right to Share, Mix and Burn


    The tickets for the event Thursday sold out in five minutes on the
    Internet, and on the evening itself the lines stretched down the
    block. The reverent young fans might as well have been holding
    cellphones aloft as totems of their fealty.

    Then again, this was the New York Public Library, a place of very high
    ceilings and even higher cultural aspirations, so the rock concert
    vibe created some dissonance. Inside, things became clearer as two
    high priests of very different tribes came together to address the
    question of "Who Owns Culture?" - a discussion of digital file-sharing
    sponsored by Wired magazine, part of a library series called "Live
    From the NYPL."

    Both Jeff Tweedy, the leader of the fervently followed rock band
    Wilco, and Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University law professor who
    has opposed criminalizing file sharing, seemed to agree that just
    about anybody who owns a modem also owns - or at least has every right
    to download - culture products.

    "I don't think anybody should make any money on music," Mr. Tweedy
    said at one point, only half joking. "Maybe we would pay audiences."

    It is a curious sight when a rock star appears before his flock and
    suggests they take his work without paying for it, and even encourages
    them to. Mr. Tweedy, who has never been much for rock convention,
    became a convert to Internet peer-to-peer sharing of music files in
    2001, after his band was dropped from its label on the cusp of a tour.
    Initially, the news left Wilco at the sum end of the standard rock
    equation: no record/no tour, no tour/no money, no money/no band. But
    Mr. Tweedy released "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" for streaming on the band's
    Web site, and fans responded in droves. Wilco then took on the
    expenses of its tour as a band.

    The resulting concerts were a huge success: Mr. Tweedy remembered
    watching in wonder as fans sang along with music that did not exist in
    CD form. Then something really funny happened. Nonesuch Records
    decided to release the actual plastic artifact in 2002. And where the
    band's previous album, "Summerteeth," sold 20,000 in its first week
    according to SoundScan, "Yankee" sold 57,000 copies in its first week
    and went on to sell more than 500,000. Downloading, at least for
    Wilco, created rather than diminished the appetite for the corporeal
    version of the work.

    Both Mr. Tweedy and Mr. Lessig used their talk to say that the Web, in
    an age where conglomerated FM radio has squeezed out virtually all
    possibility of hearing anything worthy and new, is where fans are best
    exposed to music they might want to buy. And during the presentation
    (which was streamed live on Wilco's Web site), Mr. Lessig added that
    the decision to outlaw downloading would have a profoundly inhibiting
    effect on the creation of culture. He said that in every instance,
    from the player piano to radio to VCR's to cable, the law had landed
    on the side of the alleged "pirates," allowing for the copying or
    broadcasting of cultural works for private consumption. Thus far, both
    the music industry and the film industry has succeeded in making it
    illegal for consumers to download their products .

    Mr. Lessig said that "the freedom to remix, not just words, but
    culture" was critical in the development of unforeseen works of art.
    He pointed to "The Grey Album," produced by the D.J. Danger Mouse, a
    remix of the Beatles' "White Album" and Jay-Z's "Black Album" that
    resulted in a wholly new and unexpected piece of music.

    "What does it say about our democracy when ordinary behavior is deemed
    criminal?" he asked. Mr. Lessig and the moderator, Steven Johnson, a
    contributing editor at Wired, made much of the fact that the
    discussion was taking place in a library, where much of the Western
    cultural canon is available free.

    Mr. Tweedy has little sympathy for artists who complain about
    downloading. "To me, the only people who are complaining are people
    who are so rich they never deserve to be paid again," he said.

    Mr. Lessig, one of the philosopher kings of Internet law, and Mr.
    Tweedy, the crown prince of indie music, traded places more than a few
    times during the presentation, with Mr. Lessig, who has argued
    copyright cases before the United States Supreme Court, enthusiastic
    about the artistic possibilities the Web engenders, and Mr. Tweedy
    making sapient pronouncements on the theoretical underpinnings of

    "Once you create something, it doesn't exist in the consciousness of
    the creator," Mr. Tweedy said, telling the audience that they had an
    investment in a song just by the act of listening. Later, at a dinner
    at Lever House, Mr. Tweedy suggested that downloading was an act of
    rightful "civil disobedience."

    All of it - high and low culture, Supreme Court rulings and mashed-up
    video clips ridiculing the president - was eagerly lapped up by the
    audience, which included musicians like David Byrne and D.J. Spooky,
    along with a throng of fans who would show up to hear Mr. Tweedy read
    from a digital phone directory.

    Afterward, Alex Sherwin, a 36-year-old graphic designer, said, "It
    would have been better with a guitar, but I still enjoyed hearing what
    he had to say." Mr. Sherwin said his favorite CD was a live Jeff
    Tweedy performance in Chicago, one that had been recorded and
    distributed with the artist's happy assent.

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