Internet applications such as Napster are not weakening copyright protection, they're actually contributing to making it stronger, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig told the crowd at O'Reilly's Peer-to-Peer conference on Friday morning.
By raising the ire of Hollywood and its armies of lawyers, the Napster case has further strengthened a century-long trend of extending the protection of intellectual property far beyond what the framers of the Constitution intended.
The result is that the freedom to innovate is being chilled and "unless we take political action, your right to build it first will be removed," Lessig said.
"I thought we knew the Internet was going to mess things up, that it was going to change things, and we the lawyers were going to commit ourselves to watching and waiting," Lessig said in the morning's opening keynote.
While Congress has decided to take a more cautious approach on regulating the Internet in regards to pornography, the lobbying and litigational influence of the entertainment industry are pushing regulation more aggressively on intellectual property issues.
"The Hollywood lawyers have noticed something about the Internet: it conflicts with something they value," Lessig said. That thing is control over music, films, and other forms of intellectual property.
He was preaching to the converted at the Peer-to-Peer conference, a gathering of technical and business folk who are looking to develop the file-sharing capabilities demonstrated by Napster, as well as other P2P apps, into profitable enterprises.
But, Lessig said, they are not immune from the 9th Circuit Court's decision on Napster, which holds the service accountability for the trading of copyrighted music by its members.
"I want everyone in this room to consider themselves a revolutionary and go out and develop whatever you damn well please."
"You've been called a hippie, and I've been called a communist."
"Many of you are telling yourself, that was about Napster, we're about P2P. Nothing about the 9th Circuit Court decision was about us. Napster can fail and that has nothing to do with us."
Lessig's view was that if Napster could be shut down for the law violators that used it, so could any other service. "I promise you, as a lawyer, I know something about law violators. There are law violators in your space."
After his speech, Lessig joined into a panel discussion where Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow went further, encouraging everyone in the crowd to ignore the bad laws of cyberspace.
"I originally thought Larry was the enemy, because he wanted to introduce law into cyberspace," Barlow said. "Then I came around to the idea that laws were the only way to protect us from the lawyers.
"After the 9th Circuit Court decision, I feel that the only way to deal with law in cyberspace is to ignore it, wildly, flagrantly," Barlow said. "I want everyone in this room to consider themselves a revolutionary and go out and develop whatever you damn well please."
While Barlow said the increasing strength of intellectual property laws was the result of corruption between rich entertainment contributors and Congress, Lessig said the roots are deeper than that.
"It's more than just corruption. The ordinary public is on Hollywood's side.... The public has to learn to understand how creativity depends on stuff being returned to the public.
"The American public believes they are protecting themselves and Hollywood against a bunch of hippies and communists," Lessig said, noting to Barlow, "You've been called a hippie, and I've been called a communist."
David Sims was the editorial director of the O'Reilly Network.
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