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Free Culture is free online

10 May 2004

Lawrence Lessig has put his money where his mouth is - and his publisher has helped him do so. Lessig, already well-known in some circles for his book The Future of Ideas, has long argued for the free dissemination of material on the web. His new book, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, was published in March by Penguin US but a free online download has been available from the start.

Lessig's editor Scott Moyers suggested creating a free digital version because he felt that 'by putting the book on the Internet we can get the word out to the first-line people who are going to help us'. Lessig commented that: 'What so many examples around the world demonstrate is that free content actually helps push commercial content.' The current number of downloads might be around 200,000, many of them from Amazon, so it's been an effective exercise and many readers may have subsequently decided to buy the paper version.

If the idea spreads, Lessig said: 'lots more content will be available online to people around the world, even to people who can't buy it. If we're right, it also means the sale of more books.' This idea of the free dissemination of information through the Internet is very attractive, particularly in of the many countries in the world where books are prohibitively expensive in relation to incomes and yet there is huge demand for books.

But there is a downside to all this. For Lessig free web distribution of his book makes sense precisely because that's what his book is about. But other authors may worry about their copyright and how to make money from their writing. For works of reference the outcome is less clear-cut and publishers are still struggling with how to get people to pay for reference material which can be delivered in a more efficient and up-to-date way online. For fiction and other kinds of reading for pleasure the book still looks like a good bet. But for books which are about spreading ideas, the web is just perfect.