@ TED: Lawrence Lessig Places Today’s Copyright Laws Into Perspective

At its best, TED is an argument against cynicism. Even on a day during which Goldie Hawn tiptoed on stage to give out an award (don’t ask), TED was able to rise above its occasional self-congratulatory tone to address big issues in big ways. Legendary venture capitalist John Doerr started the day with a presentation about global warming that ended with him in tears. And war photojournalist James Nachtwey spoke movingly about his decades of chronicling the lives and deaths of people in the most extreme situations. Former president Bill Clinton spoke of his wish to create a health system in Rwanda, telling a tale made all the more dramatic by the fact that the Rwandan homicide happened during his administration. You may be skeptical about VCs, journalists, and politicians, but this was the sort of day when even skeptics had to acknowledge that even flawed public figures can be passionate about things that matter.
Yeah yeah yeah, but was there more talk about digital media today than yesterday? Yes, albeit indirectly. Lawrence Lessig, a champion of copyright reform and a founder of Creative Commons, began his rapid-fire talk by mentioning how John Philips Sousa, the master of American march music, was chagrined a century ago by the invention of the phonograph because he feared it would end entertainment as a form in which amateurs could be the stars. It limited choices, he fretted: an argument one could make about large media companies today. During a tour de force presentation, Lessig galloped through a century of the battle between rights holders and innovators, inexorably moving to today’s ascent of user-generated content, thanks to which — after a century — Sousa’s dream of amateurs getting heard has returned. Especially when he examined how BMI killed the ASCAP monopoly on music copyrights back in the 1940s, Lessig made a point worth noting now: The technology may be different and the money in question may be larger, but the current battles between rights holders and innovators are mirrors of ones that have played out over at least the past century. So the lesson for digital media pros from the forward-looking TED conference is, ironically, that we ought to look back to see how we got here.