Thursday, August 23, 2007
Free Culture: Lessig and Frozen Yogurt
It's hard to find an authentic example of irony in pseudoironic postmodern culture, but this might be it. The other day, I was on the train when I saw a familiar type treatment on the back of a newspaper (and in this case, by type treatment, I mean both the words themselves and the way in which they were designed). It said "Free Culture," which is the name of a book I really liked by Lawrence Lessig.
The book is about creating a free environment for art and innovation, and it sketches a very convincing argument about the dangers of runaway copyright law. It's a refreshingly non-partisan take on the subject, and the discussion is rooted heavily in the realm of fact, history, and measured argument. Lessig argues that within any media environment, innovation has to feed off itself, and if intellectual property laws are too strictly enforced, the society will become closed and stagnant, and growth will be discouraged.
It was a great book, but I never expected to see it in a full-page ad on a daily newspaper. I took a closer look to figure out what was going on. Turns out it was an ad for Bloomingdales' free carrot frozen yogurt giveaway. The arrangement of the text isn't quite the same (the ad headline is on two lines), but both are in all caps, and they're in a similar, highly geometrical, sans-serif font. More importantly, it's the SAME PHRASE.
My intention here is not to cry plagiarism. Jesus, plagiarism wouldn't even make sense... there's no way for Bloomingdales to profit off a reference to Lessig's book. Outside the academic/economist/technologist circle, this book isn't exactly a world-renown piece of literature, and I doubt it's a demographic that Boomingdales is targeting right now. Oddly, the ad heading doesn't make a whole lot of sense on its own. "Free Culture" is a little too awkward a phrase to be useful if it's only being taken totally literally. So whether or not you assume their innocence, the advertisement doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense.
My assumption is that some designer saw Lessig's book on a shelf, or had read it a while ago, and they had the phrase "Free Culture" lingering in their head. I've seen it happen... a designer, writer, artist, marketer, etc. assumes they're pulling a line from their imagination, but they're actually peeling it directly from something they've seen or read recently. I've done it myself, in fact.
Of course, there's the irony that a phrase got pulled directly from a book whose mission is to allow appropriation to happen. It's a little fragment of postmodern poetry.
But there's also the little bit of insight here: Bloomingdales has proven Lessig's point, that media feeds on itself, and it only works because there's a rich, sometimes overwhelming space to draw from. Who know... maybe Lessig has helped Bloomingdales to sell some frozen yogurt? If so, I'd like to think he approves.