RIP: A remix manifesto

Last weekend I saw RIP: A remix manifesto, a new documentary about remix culture and the war over copyright. The movie is fantastic. It has interviews with Lawrence Lessig, with Mary Beth Peters, head of the U.S. copyright office, with Bruce Lehman, architect of the DMCA. This documentary is not a script put to film. It is a movie, with all the sound and imagery that make that such a powerful medium. It doesn’t just tell how remixing can improve society: it shows how the freedom to create has liberated poor Brazilians from a lifetime of violence. It shows remixing in action, and it is a remix itself. Just brilliant. Anyone who gives a damn should see it.

One interview in particular was shocking. Lehman explained American copyright policy in the 1990s. He said America made a deal with the world: the U.S. would open its borders, allowing other countries to supply it with consumer goods. In exchange, American IP laws would be imposed elsewhere. He seemed bitter about the failure of the policy, saying the U.S. had kept its part of the bargain, but the Chinas and Indias of the world had not.

Here’s the important bit: Lehman described the U.S. policy in terms of exporting industrial jobs in exchange for high-margin information work. Now I’m a computer programmer, so I’m happy when governments take knowledge work seriously, but I know that’s not for everyone. To read between the lines, they wrote off Michigan, they wrote off Ohio, they wrote off the industrial heartland of their country. They wrote off the people who can build a car but not program a computer or film a movie. I find this outrageous. On top of that, the payoff was to be the imposition of coercive controls on culture and ideas around the world, effectively preventing competition by poorer countries.

In some circles this is pretty much a standard critique of the U.S. policy. It’s another thing entirely to hear it from the horse’s mouth. This was presumably filmed before the financial crisis, but I’m still amazed that Lehman would put a statement with such obviously explosive implications on the public record. Today GM and Chrysler flirt monthly or weekly with bankruptcy, depending on huge cash infusions from the government. A major information-based industry (finance) has cratered, taking the economy with it. Copyright warfare makes outlaws of an entire generation. Nice policy.

2009-03-15

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