Lessig, others: There is more to the world than just the USA

Before I begin with my (minor) criticism, please don’t take this the wrong way. Although I haven’t written about Lawrence Lessig before, I have been following much of what he has been doing in the way of alternative copyright licensing methods (Creative Commons), copyright reform (see Lessig’s “five changes that would make a world of difference” and ignore the title), and reducing corruption in government (Change Congress). His views are well thought-out and are helping to make the world a better place. What follows is a suggestion to Mr. Lessig and others about how they can help even more.

Like many prominent figures and companies, I have noticed Lessig focusing primarily on issues in the United States using a writing style that suggests what goes on in the US and how it affects the US is all that matters. The most recent example of this is Lessig’s latest blog post, “On the Google Book Search agreement“. In it, he states that the agreement is “good news for…the public”. But he fails to mention that the deal applies exclusively to the United States (the Google Blog says: “all of these services will be available to readers who access Google Book Search in the United States. Outside the U.S., the user experience with Google Book Search will be the same as it is today.”). So it would have been much more appropriate to say “the American public”. This is just a detail, though; the major problem I have with Lessig’s post is that no mention is made of the agreement’s effects outside of the US and the assumption that it is useful to everyone even though most of it only applies to a limited set of people (less than 5% of the people in the world, in fact). It seems that there are pieces of the agreement that would be useful in countries other than the US, but it is hard for a person to even know that this is an issue if people blogging about it don’t make a point of mentioning it.

I respect Lessig’s new direction, reforming the US Congress. But I wish it were being done on a more global scale. It is obvious to me that the US is not the only country suffering from government corruption. All one needs to do is look at the international copyright treaties and the countries that have implemented them to see that corruption extends into many other Western countries as well. Lessig saw that US copyright law was becoming a mess because of corruption in the US Congress and is now going for the root of that particular problem. Perhaps it is a lack of resources that confines Lessig’s quest to the US. In any case, I hope that Lessig and others remember that fixing local government can only go so far. To really change the world, we need to ensure that international bodies like the UN and WIPO are focusing on the facts, not the people that line their pockets.

To be fair, focusing on the USA is not an issue exclusive to Lessig. It is primarily because Lessig’s most recent and very good intentions to fix the world (Change Congress) have focused squarely on the US that I am addressing this post primarily to him. I have also seen this US-centric behaviour on mailing lists and in licensing agreements, as described by one of my recent dents (see this image specifically), as noted by Michael Geist, and as brought up on TechCrunch (Pandora and Hulu in particular).

When blogging about issues or deciding how to fix the world, please remember that you live in a world with more than 6 billion people, most of whom are not in your country.

3 Responses to “Lessig, others: There is more to the world than just the USA”

  • I can understand the idea that Lessig should be expanding beyond the political lines of the USA. But, this is where he lives so naturally he’s focused on on his home country. And by no means is he advocating that others shouldn’t focus on THEIR own countries. In fact, that was the idea behind Creative Commons and the fact that its become so successful internationally is because he’s allowed others to step up in their own communities and carry the mantle.
    And its already happening with his new group Change Congress as well: a whole new group in Canada has adopted the Change Congress platform, made it their own and is running with it in their own Parliament.


    Lessig’s focused on the U.S. because its what he knows. And he wants you to focus on your own country and community. But thats up to you…he’s not going to fish for you.

  • Hi Ossguy,

    First, a couple of disclaimers: I’m a former law student of Lessig’s, so take everything I say below with a grain of salt because I may be a bit biased (in favour of him). Also, US born and educated, I now live in a former outpost of the British Empire, one less beset by overcrowding, rampant pollution, and materialism than the US. In short, I talk every day with smart folks who have interesting, fresh criticisms of the way US politicians, journalists, and media mavens conceptualise and attempt to solve the problems we all face together.

    So here we go. I think you’re absolutely correct that a lot of writing done by US authors, journalists, pundits, and scholars seems to assume that the regulatory, legal, political and social concerns of the US are the only ones worth thinking and writing about. Solutions for Americans, are, as you say, erroneously treated as solutions for all.

    The tendency to write from a particularly “American” perspective is most apparent in the political arena – especially in reporting about war (reporting on Georgia, if you recall, was undoubtedly tilted toward a ridiculously one-sided interpretation of events that only idiots in the US subscribe to) – but I think you’re right that the attitude seeps into other types of academic writing and journalism. (I’m reading Philip Bobbitt’s new book – Terror & Consent – and let me tell you, as brilliant as this book is, it definitely suffers from unnecessarily narrow horizons.)

    Ok, so, with all that said, let me defend Lessig’s approach to writing about intellectual property policy and corruption. Lessig is a fellow who not only likes to get things right, but HAS to get them right. He thinks his views through very carefully, adjusts them as new circumstances require, and is willing to listen to a wide range of voices – especially voices from outside the academy (something too many American academics would just never do).

    Lessig is quite open to new ideas, so the notion that a non-American regulatory solution or idea would be off the table just doesn’t wash wish me. Not sure if that’s implied in what you’ve said above, but to avoid confusion, I’m throwing it out there.

    As for the notion that Lessig’s views about corruption are somehow geographically bound, I’d actually challenge you to have a closer look at what he has said. He’s tried to come up with a comprehensive and sustainable conception of corruption that reformers of all hues, nationalities and zip codes can use to conceptualise the causes and remedies for particular forms of corruption. Sure, he hasn’t written a book or article comparing parliamentary government and non-parliamentary forms with an eye to showing why one form of government is more prone to corruption than another (a silly endeavour if you ask me, since both have structural features which serve as breeding grounds for it), but let me assure you, it’s not because he’s got some axe to grind against such projects; it’s just that his approach to corruption is not primarily that of a comparative political scientist. Lessig has a long-standing interest in philosophy, one he developed at Cambridge (if memory serves) prior to law school. And so, he approaches these problems conceptually in the first instance, so he can accurately identify the critical issues at hand.

    What I’m driving at is that Lessig is probably the public intellectual *least likely* to be guilty of the specific form of myopia that you’re (rightfully) concerned about. He’s very well-informed about the regulatory problems affecting non-US jurisdictions in the IP space in particular, but his philosophical/conceptual approach to legal, regulatory and political problems, is designed to bring everyone together by using a vocabulary that is not geographically specific but which speaks to everyone where they are. Lessig’s far more cosmopolitan than you give him credit for, my friend.

    In any event, I hope I haven’t misunderstood any of your comments above. And nothing I’ve said here is meant to be an attack on you personally; I only mean to challenge your views (as I see them). Take care.


  • One: It’s silly to suggest that such public figures such as Lessig help “even more”. Lessig has already done far more than can be expected of any one man. We have to be willing to step up as agents of change in our own arena.

    Two, and in line with other commentors: Unlike many Americans, Lessig rarely seems to have the US-only we-only-matter concept. He speaks about US law because that is where he is educated and to Americans because they are his compatriots.

    Three: you know what I think of UN, WIPO, and others. They’re a media circus and a sham. Any energy put towards them is wasted.

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