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Spotlight: Michael Weinberg, Staff Attorney for Public Knowledge [UPDATED] - The LAMP

Spotlight: Michael Weinberg, Staff Attorney for Public Knowledge [UPDATED]

By February 11, 2011 News No Comments

Michael Weinberg

This month, we sat down with Michael Weinberg, staff attorney for a Washington, D.C.-based digital rights advocacy group called Public Knowledge. We spoke with him about why digital rights are so important, what you need to know about threats to your digital rights and how The LAMP’s recently-launched LAMPlatoon expands fair use awareness. And, click here for Michael’s interview with LAMP Education Director Katherine Fry and Executive Director D.C. Vito!

What does Public Knowledge do?

Public Knowledge works in Washington, D.C. to protect the public’s right to control their digital lives and experiences. We do that by making sure that the Internet is an open platform that allows anyone to communicate and express themselves. We also protect the checks and balances in copyright law to avoid free speech and expression being stifled by claims of infringement. In practice that means talking to members of Congress, people who work at federal agencies, and other policymakers in Washington, D.C. to make sure they take the public into consideration.

How do you define digital rights?

To me, digital rights are the rights that allow you to freely express yourself in the digital world without having to get permission from gatekeepers. That means being able to communicate online without getting permission from your Internet Service Provider (ISP), use the digital media you purchase in a way that is convenient for you, and being able to comment on culture without getting a copyright waiver from content owners.

How did you get interested in digital rights advocacy?

I was always impressed with all of the new technologies that computers and the Internet enabled, but grew increasingly frustrated that restrictive laws and policies prevented some of them from fully developing. We get to live in a time where so many new things are possible to do. Unfortunately, in many cases, laws that never imagined these new things prevent them from reaching the public. I love that part of my day is spent finding ways for innovative people to bring their innovative ideas to the public.

What are some of the most urgent threats to the average person’s digital rights?

One threat is automated copyright infringement detection systems. While these systems are often pretty good at determining if two works match, they cannot tell if the use of the works is legal or not. A computer cannot do a fair use analysis. That means that many times these systems flag fair uses as infringements and take them down unjustly.

Another is what it means to own a digital thing. Historically when you purchase a physical object you had ownership and control over it. That gave you rights – the right do modify it, or give it away, or use it in a way unintended by the person who sold it to you. Once you purchased it the person who sold it to you lost control over the object. That is increasingly untrue for digital goods. All of those agreements that you click past when you buy something digital online usually say that you are “licensing” the digital object, not purchasing it. The sellers do this in order to prevent you from exercising those traditional rights of ownership. This should be an incredibly worrying development to anyone who ever purchases anything digital.

Who have been some of your favorite guests on your podcast (other than The LAMP folks, of course)?

Well, no one compares to LAMP folks. I tell people that the podcast is kind of a scam for me. It gives me an excuse to get in touch with anyone I want and chat with them for half an hour about the interesting thing they are doing. Because I get to choose all of the guests, I kind of like all of them. But that’s kind of a lame answer, so I will say that all of the 3D printing people have been a lot of fun. It was also great to talk to the person behind Musopen, a site that makes public domain performances of classical music available for free. It is a great resource for people who make videos and need high quality scores.

Why is understanding and exercising fair use so important?

Fair use is important because it prevents copyright law from interfering with free speech. At its core, it makes sure that no copyright holder can block speech that he or she does not like or agree with. Also, fair use recognizes that our culture builds upon itself. Copyright law might not recognize this as much as I would like, but fair use does provide a way for creators to incorporate existing culture into new creations.

From your perspective, what potential does LAMPlatoon have to impact the practice of and dialogue around fair use?

LAMPlatoon is fantastic because it teaches kids that there is nothing sacred about the media that is presented to them. If they think that something is wrong, or misguided, or does not make sense, they are free to point that out. It also teaches kids to turn media back on itself. The commercial breaks would be much less effective if they were just descriptions of the commercials interspersed with commentary (and then the doll turns. and then stars come out of its eyes. and then the girl smiles. …..) Instead, LAMPlatoon participants turn the commercial against itself, and use the commercial itself to prove their point.

Once kids understand that they are free to use media to comment media they will see the world as a two-way place. Hopefully they will also recognize that fair use allows for that two-way dialogue because it prevents the owners of the commercials from silencing their commentary.