Case Studies/A Tangle of Thorns

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free culture, copyright, creativity, intellectual property, law, Vladimir Nabokov, Lawrence Lessig


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The Fair Use of the Commons in a Transformative World

A remix of Lessig's THE FUTURE OF IDEAS and Nabokov's LOLITA.


In The Future of Ideas, Lawrence Lessig explains how the Internet revolution has produced a counterrevolution of devastating power and effect. Creativity flourished in the internet because the internet protected an innovation commons. The internet’s very design built a neutral platform upon which the widest range of creators could experiment. The legal architecture surrounding it protected this free space so that culture and information--the ideas of our era--could flow freely and inspire an unprecedented breadth of expression. But this structural design is changing--both legally and technically.

In Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, the narrator and protagonist, middle-aged Humbert Humbert, becomes obsessed and sexually involved with a 12-year-old girl named Dolores Haze. Due to its subject matter, Nabokov was initially unable to find an American publisher for Lolita. He finally published with Olympia Press in Paris, September 1955. After the (London) Sunday Express called Lolita "the filthiest book I have ever read" and "sheer unrestrained pornography," British Customs officers were instructed to seize all copies entering the United Kingdom. In December 1956 the French followed suit, and the Minister of the Interior banned the book.

The first American edition was issued without problems by G.P. Putnam's Sons in 1958, and was a bestseller, the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in the first three weeks of publication.

Today, Lolita is considered one of the finest novels written in the 20th century.

"In the context of porn, as I have already argued, the courts’ response is to wait and see. And indeed, this is the response of the government in many different contexts. Porn, privacy, taxation: in each case, courts and the government have insisted we should wait to see how the network develops. In the context of copyright, the response has been different." - Lawrence Lessig

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Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0


In the 1950s, Lolita was transgressive for sexual content; today, issues of copyright and 'fair use' are equally transgressive.