Lawyers Threaten Open-Source Movement--Law Prof

Lawrence Lessig warns developers to get off the sidelines in historic battle.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

August 29, 2001

2 Min Read

SAN FRANCISCO--Stanford Law School professor and cyberspace expert Lawrence Lessig exhorted software developers Wednesday to lend their voices and money to defeating intellectual-property laws that he says chill innovation.

During his keynote speech at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here, Lessig told open-source developers that new regulatory attitudes toward electronic content distribution--and the changing nature of the Internet--threaten to alter the network's balance between free distribution and controlled content. He has the background to exhort, too. Lessig has advised the courts on the Microsoft antitrust case, written on Internet law, and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

"You shouldn't like me--I produce lawyers for a living," Lessig said. "You built an extraordinary platform for innovation, and my kind is working to shut it down."

The Internet's architecture succeeds, he argued, because it doesn't discriminate about the types of content that flow across it. "Now that system is being changed," he said. Cable TV and wireless telcos that host the flow of online data aren't bound by laws that prohibit phone companies from discriminating against new uses of their lines. They can alter the Internet's original end-to-end concept by favoring certain types of traffic. And U.S. laws, such as the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (which makes it illegal to distribute tools that can be used to circumvent copyrights), give Hollywood "perfect control" over how its content is distributed, Lessig said. Ultimately, "certain companies and certain nations are in better positions to innovate than others."

And open-source advocates aren't helping matters by attacking all intellectual-property protection with "crude" oversimplifications, Lessig said. The problem is, he said, too many find it "more fun to blather on [open-source message board] Slashdot" instead of actually doing something about the problem. Entertainment lawyers and big IT companies have "seized the high ground," he said. "The people who can make a difference in this battle are you."

Lessig passionately framed the conflict in U.S. historical and cultural terms--North vs. South, East vs. West. "The West Coast code that you [write] is far more important to promoting the right to innovate than whatever goes on in [Washington]. And you need to defend it," Lessig said. "The old will defeat this new, unless you do something to defend it."

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