The Future of Ideas

A little bit of a stir erupts as Lawrence Lessig persuades Random House to release his (2001) The Future of Ideas, in which he explores “the fate of the commons in a connected world”, under a Creative Commons licence. But don’t get too excited just yet. It’s currently available only as a single, dumb, 350-page PDF (65 of which are the footnotes). Now that’s not very useful – not Web 1.0 let alone Web 2.0. However, I’m sure some resourceful soul will soon repurpose that and give us a better hyperlinked web-native version. Even then, if you actually want to read the whole thing (as I think you should), you’ll be better off buying the print version. At less than £8 this is surely the cost-effective option.

But the Commons is not there to give us a free ride; it’s purpose is to encourage creativity. And it’s in the later (2004) Free Culture that Lessig explores this further. Subtitled “how big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture”, it is more accurately a “focused, measured argument of the issues around preserving and extending digital creativity”.

3 thoughts on “The Future of Ideas

  1. I don’t agree.

    1) If you make it “web-native” (by which I presume you mean upload it directly onto the web as HTML, or similar), then then there is the potential for formatting differences (from the original text), which in turn leads to citation/referencing differences. The single biggest reason for the success of SSRN is that an academic knows his work will be far more widely read and cited, and that must be a primary incentive for Lessig here. It would undermine that goal if there were multiple variants of the same work (and so different possible citations.) PDFs preserve the integrity of the original work.

    2) PDFs are searchable, and cut-and-pasteable. That’s two very substantial reasons why I wouldn’t say that it’s “dumb”. As an example, I have a print copy of the leading text in my field. It’s a huge two-volume work. It’s also on Westlaw. Guess how often I use the print copy?

  2. Martin, I don’t think we’re at odds here.

    1) I’m not suggesting don’t publish the PDF. If what you want is a faithful copy of the original and just the ability to cut and paste excerpts, that’s fine. What I’m saying is that’s not ideal if you want creativity to flourish which is the idea behind CC. Look at the Free Culture site and you’ll see how many different versions have been produced. (Maybe that was originally released into the CC as PDF – I don’t know.)

    2) Re print versions, it depends on the nature and size of the work. At £8, a slim, eminently readable and portable print volume is perfect, particularly if you’re likely to want to read it from cover to cover. But, like you I would rarely nowadays use a large multi-volume printed reference work.

  3. Good points, Nick; and you’re right, I think we’re more or less in agreement.

    I’m not sold on the idea of CC as a concept (although I do use a CC licence for Conflict of Laws .net:, and I think that ambivalence reflects a substantial proportion of the academic community (see this post on recently, for example.)

    As for print v web volumes, I think it depends on usage more than size. If one is going to be using it actively as research material, then the lack of a search function makes a print copy far less attractive. If, as you say, it isn’t “active” research material, but simply a book that is in your area, or interests you, then it is far better to read a print copy from cover to cover, rather than scroll through the web version.

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