I'd seen Lawrence Lessig present before, so I already knew that he is one of the most engaging speakers around. He is tremendously effective at using visuals to complement and enhance his talk -- it's light years away from the typical word-slide-with-a-couple-of-graphics presentations that most of us are bored to tears with. His opening for the Free Culture Symposium did not disappoint. Even if his content hadn't been spot on, creative, and stimulating, he would've been fun to watch and listen to.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, on the other hand, was a revelation because I had not ever seen him present. Stylistically, he's the anti-Lessig. LL's is rapid-fire, synchronized with images and words and sound and video -- it's a virtuoso performance, every element working together. Siva had no video, no images, no visuals at all. He came out with a handful of notes that he referred to occasionally, and just talked. He was very funny, very informal, and made it very clear that he was trying these ideas out -- wasn't necessarily a hundred percent sure that he was on the right track, but he'd been thinking about this stuff a lot lately and wanted to talk about it here, to see what we thought. It was a virtuoso performance too.
Lessig expanded on some of the themes laid out in his book, Free Culture. It was a "big picture" presentation, examining how the "default" for use of creative works has shifted from "free" in the analog world, to "regulated" in the digital world, and how that has resulted in a bottling up of creative works that threatens to undermine much of our ability to continue to develop culture in important ways. The bottom line is that current copyright law is no longer effective, and he ended with a plea to librarians to get involved in these issues -- if it's just lawyers and content producers talking about it, nothing, he says, is going to change.
Siva's was narrower in scope, focusing very particularly on the Google library project. While he made it clear that he is a fan of Google and thinks it's a great company, there are a number of things about the Google library project that worry him. He said, "I think Google is one of the coolest things to come around in my lifetime -- but I think libraries are cooler." He said, "My problem is not with Google, but with the five libraries."
In essence, and I hope I'm not distorting his position, he thinks the prospect of doing something like Google Library is fabulous, but he is distressed that it isn't librarians running the project. Central to the problem is the fact that Google is a company, and ultimately it is its responsibility to the shareholders that will determine its actions. Librarians, on the other hand, are supposed to be working for the public good. He points out that Google has no commitment to privacy comparable to librarians' ethics -- he asks whether Google will be as devoted to preserving the privacy of the users of Google Library as librarians are to the people who make use of their collections. There is a stability problem -- suppose at some point in the future, Google's shareholders decide that it's not a profitable endeavor, and so they shut it down? And he worries about the potential unanticipated negative effects if Google wins its fair use argument -- might that not actually inspire the copyright holders to push, successfully, for much stronger copyright protections, leading to an erosion of the fair use privileges that we now have? He spoke more passionately and fervently about the importance of librarians to these issues than many librarians do. He was adamant: "Google is not a library and never will be."
I'm sure this simply reveals what a complete intellectual property geek I am, but when, after he was done, the first hand that shot up to ask a question was Lessig's, and for the next several minutes, the two of them engaged in a discussion of tactics and possible outcomes, I was completely thrilled. Kinda like watching Bob Dylan come out at the end of a Van Morrison concert to join Van for the encore.
There was much, much more to the Symposium -- there was a Wikimedia guy there (Daniel Mayer) who gave a great presentation that showed he's got a much better grasp of the potential and limitations of Wikipedia than many of its librarian fans do; there was a contributed paper addressing the bottling up of government information that we're witnessing as so much moves to digital form; there was a superb wrap-up by Cliff Lynch where he focused on the important role of higher education institutions in taking a lead in dealing with these issues.
I learned some new things, shifted my thinking on a few others, maybe even changed my mind about a couple of things. And then I went out into Atlanta and had a great dinner in a casual Italian restaurant and listened to a few hours of a wonderful jazz quintet at Churchill Grounds. An excellent day all 'round.