Lessig: North v. South
by David Sims
Does it make you nervous that Dmitri Sklyarov could get 25 years in prison just for writing code that hacked Adobe's eBook copyright protection? It's supposed to, Lawrence Lessig, Stanford University law professor warned a crowd of about 800 at LinuxWorld in San Francisco on Wednesday.
"These are techniques designed to scare you away from innovating, ... towards a space where you must get their permission first," Lessig said. Innovation -- and the ways lawyers are working to inhibit it -- was the theme of Lessig's 45-minute keynote talk at the Marriott adjacent to Moscone Convention Center. During it he didn't miss a chance to flatter his geeky audience, praising the Internet "you built" as a system that blended control at the physical layer with freedom at the content layer, resulting in "the most incredible explosion of creativity seen in 120 years." But that commons, and the innovation it inspires, is being chipped away by "my kind" -- the lawyers that Lessig says he manufactures down at Stanford Law School.
This conflict is creating "a house divided," Lessig said, borrowing terms and imagery from the Civil War. The North -- which in this case is Northern California, home of Silicon Valley -- "believes in a free exchange of ideas." The South this time around is Southern California, home of Hollywood, which seeks perfect control over its copyrighted material. To use any of their material, Lessig said, you must travel down to "their plantation and seek permission from the master ... If you develop technology that interferes with their right of perfect control, you will be punished."
Lessig doesn't seem like the type to shrink from this type of conflict, but the problem, he said, is that the more he talks, the less people listen to him -- especially people in Washington, D.C. who might have the power to change things. "So I'm useless in this battle. ... The problem is, you people, who surprised the world with this architecture of freedom, you sit silently while these changes happen."
He admitted it's not much fun to engage in this type of crusade, to preserve freedoms by wasting time talking to lawyers, conceding that it's "much more fun to blabber on at Slashdot." But the consequences are a loss of freedom and shrinking opportunities. He implored the audience to quit wasting time on "this ridiculous battle" between advocates of different open source models, and see the real threats posed by "my kind."
"I don't come here to be your friend. You shouldn't like me: I produce lawyers for a living," he said. "But it's your code, and you have to defend it."
Lessig said that while Hollywood deploys armies of lawyers and lobbyists to preserve its perfect control over content and distribution, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has trouble making its payroll. What are you doing to preserve the freedom to innovate?
I was surprised to hear Lessig challenge the LinuxWorld audience with, "Do something!"