Only you can teach the world about the balance that can be created around a free infrastructure, Lessig said, in telling Linux supporters to raise their voices in favor of net neutrality.

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

August 15, 2006

3 Min Read

Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig called on Linux supporters to translate their support for free software into a political force that maintains the neutrality of the Internet in the face of telecommunications companies' efforts to charge extra for certain kinds of content.

For a quick explanation of net neutrality, consult this reference.

Lessig urged an auditorium full of Linux users at LinuxWorld in San Francisco Aug. 15 to call their congressmen, write letters, and lobby against Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast as the vendors try to convince Congress to let them charge higher rates for suppliers of content over the Internet. "Only you can teach the world about the balance that can be created around a free infrastructure. Only you can change the harm that lawyers and politicians are willing to impose on this network," he said.

Lessig is the founder of the Center for the Internet and Society, a Stanford University organization that files complaints and suits over restrictions to the Internet. He's also an activist in urging digital content creators to remain free from trademark and copyright restrictions. He has also attacked the use of patents to tie up software functionality.

Trademarks and copyrights were designed for printed materials and governed whether established works could be copied without their authors' permission. When working with digital files, each time a content creator works with or sends someone else the file, he's creating copies in the act of artistic innovation. The old print standards shouldn't apply, Lessig said, but Disney, Sony, and other established content suppliers are trying to apply them to "remixes," or creative works based on previous content.

Some 59% of the teenagers in the United States produce remixes and set them to music as documents of their life experiences. Instead of broadening the allowed forms of content use and reuse in digital formats, large companies can "only make them pirates," a brand that will prove corrosive to the rule of law for the coming generation, he said.

The open-source movement and Linux coders in particular have taken the notion of volunteer software creation and carried it out to the point where the world has learned that people freely collaborating can make up a formidable force. When the Justice Department was planning an anti-trust proceeding against Microsoft, its main fear was that restricting Microsoft would result in some other company gaining a monopoly position in operating systems.

The possibility that Linux would be created and compete with Windows, without a large company responsible for it, didn't occur to Justice lawyers in 1996. "It proved not only possible, but the volunteers built a superior operating system. What was crazy in 1996 is obvious today," he said.

But it will be harder to make music, film, images, and text--the artifacts of culture--freely available for reuse on the Internet than it was to make software freely downloadable. "There were no laws against free software. The law, as currently architected, smothers creativity," he said. He pointed to his Creative Commons licensing model that lets authors allow reuse of their work, with some restrictions, as an alternative. In 3.5 years, authors of 140 million works have adopted the Creative Commons license, he noted.

Users of Microsoft Office can easily activate a Creative Commons license for their works.

About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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