Lawrence Lessig is a professor of law at Harvard Law. Lawrence spoke at the press conference hosted by Internet Archive ahead of oral argument in Hachette v. Internet Archive.
Also available at Lessig for the Internet Archive on Medium.
We should all recognize — and celebrate—the importance of commercial publishing, for authors and creators everywhere. Commercial publishing creates the income that authors depend upon to have the freedom to create great new works. Without commercial publishing, much of the greatest that will be won’t be written.
But we must also recognize that culture needs more than commercial publishing. If the business model of commercial publishing controlled our access to our past, then much of who we were, and much of how we learned to be better, would simply disappear.
Think about the extraordinary platform that is Netflix. For a small price each month, subscribers have access to thousands of movies and television shows, far more than at any point in human history. The revenue subscribers provide in turn lets Netflix invest in new creative work. No one who knew television from the 1970s could believe that the quality of television has not improved dramatically over the last 50 years.
Yet Netflix’ archive is not endless. And each year, the site culls titles from its collection and removes them from its library. Netflix does this for many reasons — for example, the content could be licensed from third parties, and the term of that license has expired, or the site may see that demand for the title is meager, so bearing the costs of carrying it no longer makes sense. Regardless of the reason, the decision is an economic one for Netflix — Netflix makes available only those titles that it continues to make economic sense to make available. Such is the business model of a commercial publisher.
But culture needs a different business model. We need access to our past, not just the part of our past that continues to be commercially viable. We need libraries that assure we can see everything our parents or grandparents saw, so we can understand why they were as they were, and how they got better. Great libraries preserve access to as much as they physically can — not based on which titles continue to earn revenue. The past is just one more competitor for a commercial publisher; but for a library, the past is a gift that is to be nurtured and protected, regardless of its commercial value.
We are at a critical moment in the history of culture. The lawsuit that the Internet Archive faces will determine whether the business model of culture is the commercial model alone, or whether there will continue to be a place for libraries, and therefore, continue to be a practice of assuring as much access to our past as is possible. The particular fight in this lawsuit is important; the general fight is critical: Is the past that we have access to just the past that continues to pay? Or is the past we can have reliable access to the past that libraries strive to make available — not for profit, but for the love of culture and for the truth that that access to all of culture continues to assure.