The Future of Ideas:
The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World
By Lawrence Lessig
By John Glassie
(Wired Magazine, December 2001)
In Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Standford law professor Lawrence Lessig argued that the Internet's original architecture, which supported personal freedoms and democratic values, "was changing, as governments and commerce increased the ability to control behavior in cyberspace." This time around, in the ominously entitled Future of Ideas, Lessig says that "a similar change is occurring with respect to innovation."
At the heart of his case: the notion that "always and everywhere, free resources have been crucial to innovation and creativity" and that the Internet was and is no exception. Lessig says the Internet and all it fostered would not have been possible without a balance between private ownership -- of real-space resources, code and content -- and a kind of public "commons," one made up of the physical infrastructure of "free" telephone lines, decentralized end-to-end architecture, universal protocols, open or free code, and unprecedented access to ideas and content. The "defining feature of the Internet is that it leaves resources free," he says.
Of course, things are changing as the second generation Internet emerges. Radio spectrum, for which wireless communications are necessary, is being allocated -- with bias, Lessig believes -- as if it were property. The cable lines, through which much of broadband access is possible, are owned by companies like AOL /Time Warner that also control the bulk of online services and online content. The reach of intellectual property law that rightly protects creators of software and content, he says, has expanded in cyberspace to a point where "copyright control is out of control."
Lessig takes pains to reassure us that he is not a raving, "rampant leftist," that he is "not against copyright law," and that "not all resources can or should be organized in a commons." And his considered analysis of the complex issues at stake, of new technologies and the history of communications law is appropriately, sometimes exhaustively, thorough.
But he does liken even newly established media titans to "old Soviets" trying to hold on to their power. "The law should resist becoming a tool to defend against the new; when change is on the horizon, it should allow the market to bring about that change."
In the end, Lessig's appeal is for common sense. "While one cannot say in the abstract that increased control is a mistake," he says, "it is clear that we are expanding this control with no sense of what is lost."
Or what could be gained. Entertainment industry folks hammering away at the Napsters of the world, for instance, might do well to remember the story of the Disney executives who said in 1974 that they would "never" permit their content to be accessible by VCRs. The movie industry that now generates $700 million a year from videos evidently worried that people who didn't actually pay for a rental could walk into a room and watch a movie for free.
Unfortunately, Lessig's own recommendations for such things as designated chunks of free spectrum, governmental "encouragement" of neutral platforms, and more reasonable limits on intellectual property protection, require "a commitment that I am skeptical our politicians are capable of giving."
The Internet revolution "has produced the most powerful spur to innovation of any in modern times," Lessig writes. But changes that increase the role of property "will end the revolution....And we do nothing about it."