Dedicated Followers of Lessig, Ya’ll

Today was panel day at SXSW—I was on three panels in one day, which was a record. We were honored to have Marybeth Peters, Register of Copyright of the United States, participate in the panel I moderated with Ali Aydar, Rick Carnes, Jay Faires, Rebecca Greenberg and Patrick Ross. The panel was entitled “Can Art Survive Google?” and it attracted an interesting mix of thoughtful folk as well as hecklers from the Future of Music Coalition and a kilted young attention-starved Lessig acolyte who made it their business to try to take over the room to one extent or another.

The topic was on a subject of importance to creators who are watching their works eroded and gobbled up on YouTube, but rarely get a voice. No one from RIAA, no one from NMPA, or MPAA. Songwriters, artists, film makers, policy makers and technologists all were represented.

Now one would have thought that with all these serious leaders of the creative community present the Future of Music types would keep themselves under control lest they reemphasize the stereotype already so firmly burned into the brain of anyone who’d encountered them before. That would have been one way to approach the day.

Knowing that there had been sightings of certain radical elements of the Lessig cult invading Austin’s creative community for the SXSW conference, we decided to do everything possible to avoid having the panel hi-jacked by the self-absorbed catering to the attention starved—which meant that direct audience interaction had to be limited to submitting written questions. Music industry, and particularly Internet industry, conference panels are frequently the target of grandstanders under the best of circumstances, and seem to attract the self-appointed leaders of one mass movement or another. Since several of the panelists actually were appointed or elected by membership organizations or the U.S. government—as opposed to self-appointed representatives of “consumers”—my decision as moderator of the panel was to require audience questions be submitted in writing during the first 40 minutes or so, and I would review the questions before asking them of the panelists (which inevitably fall into clusters whether they are spoken or written).

I did this knowing that forcing those wishing to hijack the panel to submit their questions in writing would deny them the opportunity to grandstand, and that this would create the cognitive dissonance that would lead in short order to a psychological meltdown as their attention starved brains worked them into a mental tizzy seeking their dopamine fix. My only hope was to get the panel over with before smoke started coming out of their ears. I would also point out that some of the written questions I did receive were rather pointed and personal attacks on panel members (although not me, strangely enough) and were in my judgment whacky and a little scary. I made the editorial decision not to simply read the questions aloud, but rather to try to draw out questions from the hate mail that could be restated in a manner suitable to proper debate in polite company.

We almost made it.

Even though 95% of the audience complied with the request and we had approximately 20 questions submitted out of a room of around 90 people, the pathological craving for attention in a young Scot in the back of the room (I guess wearing a kilt in Austin wasn’t getting him enough attention) boiled over and he demanded to know in the closing minutes of the panel which of us represented “the consumer” and that he was offended that “the consumer” was not “represented on the panel”.

Now let’s think about that for a moment—I doubt that anyone believes that SXSW has some kind of affirmative action type obligation to require that all points of view are represented on all panels in the entire conference. This, of course, would be a great boon to the Kilted One as he probably has some ideas about exactly who should be “representing consumers” that would allow him to transition from heckler to speaker and have his genius recognized outside of the blogosphere.

The purpose of our panel was first to represent the interests of creators and to give those interests a voice, and second to allow whoever was in the audience, be they consumers, creators or whoever, a chance to ask specific questions about copyright issues of Marybeth Peters in a polite manner befitting her position. The Kilted One also criticized me for requiring written questions of the audience, meaning that he felt that writing questions down and forcing the questioner to articulate their question was an inferior communication process to the random bellowing of men in skirts.

What was both ironic and unfortunate was that because of the respective outbursts by the Future of Music Coalition representative and by Kilted One, we were unable to get to the pet topic du jour of the self-appointed consumer representatives—orphan works. Students of the subject may recall that Marybeth Peters presented the Copyright Office report on orphan works to the U.S. Congress, so it might have been somewhat relevant to hear from her on this subject rather than compete for control of the forum with an unknown man in a dress.

I actually don’t feel sorry at all that I implemented a written question policy at the panel as some of the many written questions we did receive really were aggressively personal toward panelists and more than a tad crazy in my judgment. Sorry–crazy gets a restraining order, but crazy doesn’t get a seat at the table. Every panelist was there because of my invitation and I wasn’t going to have their visit in my home town ruined by being threatened by some whacky out of towners. There’s a fine line between weird and crazy, if you know what I mean.

We were there for one reason and one reason only—to give a voice to artists and songwriters, the other little guys who are getting trod upon in the digital world, and particularly in the digital underground that is the favorite lurking spot of Professor Lessig.

Once again, the dedicated followers of Lessig managed to alienate the very people they should be courting through persuasion and passion. And the alienation was true, convincing and abiding. And–totally unnecessary. I believe that there are some–not many–truly thoughtful people in the Lessig camp who would be appalled at the disrespect tossed at a distinguished panel of potential allies, but they are clearly not in control of the acolytes.

The one consistent comment that audience members have had at my SXSW panels for these many, many years is that they learned a lot. As any teacher knows, you can’t offer a good learning experience if you are constantly being diverted by class clowns.