Customer Reviews: The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World
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on February 19, 2002
I well remember when I first entered the Internet. Even in those days of Gopher and early versions of Mosaic, I found an exciting and brand-new world, ripe with incredible possibilities. It was a world of free expression, rapid access to vast storehouses of information, instant contact with anyone who had the resources to connect.
But a dark thought always lurked in the recesses of my mind: What will happen when "Big Money" wakes up to the power of the Web? I luridly imagined mega-corporations somehow buying up the Web, tying up content, and crying up to Big Brother when they didn't get their way.
Those days seem to be closer than I ever imagined.
That's what I learned in this intricately arresting book by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig. It's an exultant yet sobering look at how the nature of the Internet sparked a new age of innovation--and how this is now seriously threatened. As Lessig writes:
"The original Net protected fundamental aspects of innovation. End-to-end meant new ideas were protected; open code meant innovation would not be attacked; free distribution meant new ways of connecting would be assured. These protections were largely architectural. This architecture is now changing. And as it changes, as with the threats to liberty, there is a threat here to innovation."
Lessig's purpose is awaken us to our untested belief in the value of control over commons before the Net is swallowed up.
The Future of Ideas is nicely structured to that end--but you'll need to strap on your thinking cap before you dive in. Lessig is unrelentingly brilliant and his text is richly loaded with concepts you may never have considered
He begins by introducting the concept of "commons"--most simply defined as a resource held freely in common for the overall good of society. He helps us understand that concept by repeatedly referring to the public roads and highways--they are held in common, we have free access to them, they bring value where they exist.
He then takes this idea of commons and beautifully demonstrates how the Internet rapidly emerged as a new commons for innovation. Against the historical backdrop of controlled innovation that he calls the "dark ages" (well typified by AT&T's former stranglehold over U.S. telecommunications), Lessig shows us how the Web provides a gloriously free field for innovation and ideas--something undeniable in light of its impact over the last several years.
He then explains--in what I found by far the most interesting part of the book--how the nature of the Internet itself, at its physical, code and content layers, created, enabled and empowered this new commons of innovation. I learned things I'd never known about the Net and felt that familiar leap of heart at what the Web could bring.
The book then takes a dark turn as Lessig explains how each layer of the Net is falling under systems of control--systems that threaten to take away the values, norms and architecture of the Net that make it such a free field for innovation. Behind this are the usual culprits--mega-corporations aided and abetted by politicians and the courts. The result is that the commons of the Net is seriously threatened.
But that's only part of the tale Lessig tells. He explains:
"The larger story here is not about dark forces. It is about a blindness that affects our political culture generally. We have been so captured by the ideals of property and control that we don't even see the benefits from resources not perfectly controlled.... This is not a conspiracy. It is a cultural blindness."
In short, it's a story about us, We the People, who are unquestioningly letting Big Money and Big Government erode the freedoms and commons of the Net.
Lessig concludes with some practical, common-sense and challenging recommendations to stop the growing avalanche. Yet the final chapter is chilling, Lessig's closing even more so:
"We move through this moment of an architecture of innovation to, once again, embrace an architecture of control--without noticing, without resistance, without so much as a question. Those threatened by this technology of freedom have learned how to turn the technology off. The switch is now being thrown. We are doing nothing about it."
Want to do something about it? You can begin by reading this book.
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on March 13, 2003
Before proceeding to criticise this book, I want to give credit where credit is due. Lawrence Lessig has written a superbly clear and even-handed account of the erosion of the balance at the heart of intellectual property law - between public benefit from creations, and private reward for creators. With a wealth of references and a deft style, he illustrates how regulation of the internet is undermining this crucial balance.
Just as in his previous book, `Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace', Lessig upbraided cyber-libertarians for the lazy assumption that the internet will resist regulation simply by virtue of being the internet, so here he upbraids both sides of the intellectual property debate various for lazy assumptions that have disastrous consequences. Above all, the book is comprehensible to the lay reader while also being invaluable for the legal professional - the collection of references in the endnotes is alone worth the cover price.
Now, on to the flaws. The first and foremost flaw is that Lessig commits precisely the crime he railed against in `Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace' - technological determinism. He fetishises information technology, and ascribes to it vague autonomous powers, even going so far as to distinguish the internet from the `real' world and argue that it has its own `physics'. At one point, he catches himself doing this - after a reference to the `natural state' of cyberspace, he confesses: `I spend many pages in "Code" arguing against just this way of speaking.' But he can't wriggle out of it so easily - his over-dependence upon assumptions about the different nature of cyberspace undermine his (otherwise very good) argument.
A second, related flaw is that Lessig relies for his argument upon too vague a definition of `innovation'. Much of the time, he would do better to refer merely to `creativity' or `the free flow of ideas', which are precious enough in themselves to warrant protection. Inasmuch as Lessig is arguing for a rigorously experimental outlook when it comes to regulation, so that innovation might have the space to flourish, the book makes sense. But the fact is that there is a paucity of innovation today, and a cheapening of what the term `innovation' means, that goes beyond intellectual property disputes. Information technology, in particular, has conspicuously failed to live up to the many claims made for its innovative character. At no point does Lessig confront this fact.
Third, Lessig assumes too much about his readers' opinion of the US Constitution. As it happens, I believe that the Constitution is one of the best legal frameworks for the safeguarding of liberty and creativity that humanity has ever come up with. And Lessig's passion for Constitutional principle is infectious. But I am not American, and merely appealing to the historical origins of a legal principle does not suffice to convince me of the merit of that principle - principles also need to be defended in the abstract. There are many readers outside of the USA (not to mention a few within it) who - unlike myself - have no inbuilt respect for the Constitution, and will dismiss Lessig's argument out of hand rather than giving it a chance.
Fourth, Lessig's presentation could be better. Certain of his presentational choices - using environmentalist metaphors to make his point, using the word `Soviets' as a pejorative shorthand - are guaranteed to unnecessarily annoy portions of his readership. Conversely, despite Lessig's repeated (and correct) assertion that the intellectual property debate isn't about Left vs Right, he goes to unnecessary lengths to justify his argument in the terms of Left and Right. His tortured justifications for arguing against proprietary control often read like `I'm a Republican, get me out of here!'
Fifth and finally, while Lessig praises the creators of the internet for being `driven by humility to a system of non-control', he exhibits a little too much `humility' himself. When he slips in disclaimers like `I'm just a lawyer; I haven't the skill to model this counterfactual', you feel like shaking him by the shoulders and saying `For god's sake man, have the courage of your convictions!'
I've been a little harsh in my criticism, so allow me to reiterate. Whatever its flaws, this is an excellent book, and an important addition to a small but growing genre - [...].
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on November 25, 2001
This book should be at least a candidate for the National Book Award. It is, I believe, an important book for our time. The author, Lawrence Lessig, according to the book's jacket, is a professor of law at the Stanford Law School; once a clerk for Judge Richard Posner; and is a board member of the Red Hat Center for Open Source, among other things. So he has the knowledge, experience, and judgment to write such a book.
What is the main concern of the book? Let me try to put it in this fundamental way: How do we want the Internet to develop? How do we create the conditions necessary to maximize the creative potential of the Internet and, for that matter, any new electronic technology?
These concerns leads us to the consider the laws that we have now--especially the patent and copyright laws, and perhaps to a lesser extent, the anti-trust laws.
I am familiar with some theoreticians who hold that there should not be any patent and copyrights at all. This is one extreme view, which the author does not hold. I believe that there has to be adequate reward to the innovator, and copyright and patents--which indeed does grant a limited monopoly--does that.
However, the author argues that the current laws that we have today go too far in the other extreme. These laws he argues hinder future creativeness. The laws we have today, he says, will lead to a future where "take the Net, mix it with the fanciest TV, add a simple way to buy things and that's pretty much it." (page 7) But the future can be better and greater than this, in ways we cannot fathom now.
It seems to me that concerning copyrights and patents, a utilitarian standard should apply: Pursue the policy that maximizes wealth in society as a whole. Granting patents and copyrights does that--for in the very fact of doing that--it gives a signal to members of society that innovation will be rewarded. However, perhaps the length of these copyrights and patents are too long.
After a patent expires, others copy or modify the original product--as can be seen in the case of prescription drugs--which thus increases the supply of such a good, and thus lowers its price. Consumers benefit.
Reducing copyright and patent protection would not only have this immediate economic beneit to consumers, but it would have the long-term impact of promoting creativity.
The author, argues, for example, that, concerning computer software, he would "protect software for only five years, renewable once. But that protection would be granted only if the author submitted a copy of the source code to be held in escrow while the work was protected. Once the copyright expired, that escrowed copy would be publicly available from the US Copyright Office server." (page 253)
Ideas like this are anathema to some companies. But if we had such a policy in place, I can readily imagine a reality where there would be less market dominanace by a few companies, and the innovation rate of software would have been better.
Of course, as with any author, one can disagree here and there. The author seems to side with Napster, for instance. I do think that the courts ruled correctly in that case. As the saying goes, "If you don't like the law, you take it to your congressman." Or to the reading public, who hopefully will influence public policy.
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on March 17, 2002
The author of this great new book about ideas in the age of technology is no college kid touting, "I have a right to, like, copy MP3s!" On the contrary, Law Professor Lawrence Lessig's book provides a balanced, logical, and realistic argument for more careful Copywright and Intellectual Property legislation. In fewer than 300 pages, Lessig not only lays out the history of IP law, but also thoroughly examines the current move towards corporate favoritism.
This makes for a very discouraging read; however, the reader is left with plenty of ideas about how IP law could be shaped in the future. Lessig's suggestions would go a long way towards protecting innovation while still upholding the core principles of fair use and reasonable limits the Founding Fathers wrote into the US Constitution. (Buy a copy of this book for your Congressman!)
Lessig, a Liberal who clerked for the popular Conservative Circuit Court Judge and prolific public intellectual Richard Posner, also demonstrates why this issue cuts right across standard ideological lines. Even if you only read chapters 4 and 11, I highly reccomend this book for a thorough examination of this most pressing issue of current public policy.
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on January 23, 2002
The Future Of Ideas by Lawrence Lessig
Lawrence Lessig established his credentials as a civil libertarian and Internet advocate a few years ago with _Code And Other Laws Of Cyberspace_, his brilliant and vastly important work about the world of complete control toward which the Internet is converging. _Code_ was a highly pessimistic portrayal of the legal and corporate infrastructure that would eventually lead the Internet - in Lessig's view - to be a masterpiece of control more evil than George Orwell ever could have imagined.
Lessig's argument in _Code_ was manifold, but one of its most important points was that we miss the real bad guys if we focus all our attention on removing government regulation from the Internet. Control can come from many directions: corporations can control us, social norms can, and so can the government. From the Founding Fathers until now, we have focused all our energy on weakening the government, while beefing up the private sector. In _Code_, Lessig showed us that the chickens are coming to roost: we're careening toward a thoroughly controlled world in which corporations will be able to know everything about us, because we have placed our entire personas inside a world that is as malleable as computer code.
There is no ``nature" of cyberspace, said Lessig in _Code_: the Internet is nothing more or less than the code that controls it. The Net is not ``by its very nature" unregulable, because it has no nature - it merely has code. In fact, Lessig goes on to show that we can expect a world of more regulation, not less, as the Net becomes more and more dominated by commerce.
In The Future Of Ideas, Lessig focuses his energy on a different, but nonetheless still very important aspect of the Internet's development: the Old Guard's habit of constraining innovation. The point has been made before in varied contexts related to the Net. Jessica Litman's book Digital Copyright argued that copyright holders tend to stomp on new technologies because the latter normally don't have powerful interests behind them and the former do. (E.g., the Betamax copyright-infringement case in the 1980's.) Lessig goes further, showing that in many different cases (copyright-related and otherwise) the Old Guard have restricted innovation to the point that the Internet of the future will be just like every old technology. We'll get television all over again.
Lessig starts with his ideal, which many civil libertarians and hackers share: an Internet of totally open-source software and end-to-end (e2e) network design. Throughout the book, he shows why corporations - behaving, from their perspective, in a totally honest and right-headed way - are straying from that ideal into a world of more copyright restrictions, less openness, and more control. In many ways, this book is a continuation of _Code_, this time focusing on specific aspects of the future that Lessig foresaw in the earlier work. As with _Code_, _The Future Of Ideas_ is pessimistic, stating in strong terms that it expects nightmarish visions of the future to come true.
Much of the ground that Lessig covers here has been dealt with in greater detail elsewhere. For instance, Litman's book Digital Copyright is a great introduction both to the history of copyright and to its future. But few books tackle the expanse of material that _The Future Of Ideas_ discusses. Lessig covers everything from spectrum auctions to content licensing to patents to trademarks to copyrights, all while keeping his eye on the general notion that the laws have moved quickly out of our hands. As Litman pointed out in Digital Copyright, and as Lessig reiterates here, the few people who understand copyright law are all copyright lawyers. Those who must live in the law's shadow - ordinary citizens - have no idea what copyright law says, and when presented with incoherent copyright law, their first instinct is to say, ``It couldn't possibly say what you say it says." The law has moved past the point where citizens could control it.
While he's at it, Lessig manages to keep his head about him. He clearly has a well-formed opinion on the topics he covers, yet he manages to structure the book as a series of questions. Lessig suggests that a society is defined by the questions it doesn't ask - the ones it takes for granted. So during his analysis of electronic-law issues, he tries to get us to question things that we've forgotten were even questions to begin with - questions like whether more control is always better, whether more privatization of resources is always a good idea, and so on. And throughout his discussion, he manages to keep the discussion coherent: he has a few guiding themes, and his discussions of electronic law keep returning to those themes.
The result is a remarkably readable book that should worry anyone who has an interest in the future of the electronic world. Little of the material in _The Future Of Ideas_ will be new to Slashdot readers, but there is probably no single book that ties this issues together as well as this one does. The overall evil that it reveals is worth paying attention to.
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on November 4, 2001
Nothing short of a best seller, this book will certainly become as popular as "Code and other Laws of Cyberspace".
This time, Pr Lessig takes us on a tour of the world of intellectual property law and cyberspace. With great strength, the book induces a profound reflection on what intellectual property should and should not be. One of the major arguments developed throughout the book is that some resources should be free (not as in free beer, but as in free speech) and that such "freedom" is the only way to have innovation. The main example of this theory: the Internet. Build on open code and with open access, the Internet is the perfect example of how the freedom of the resource induces creativity on a large scale. This creativity boom is now threatened by the extension of copyright into the digital world.
Attacking strongly what copyright and intellectual property law has become, the author points out that the content industry has, in an effort to protect it's market, defined what we could and what we will be able to do with "our" music.
For the copyright lawyers, this book will be an occasion to think about the effects our practice has on everyone's life and liberty. Pr Lessig is right. Several new copyright legislation go to far and procure a level of control over content and use that was never meant to exist.
For the non-lawyer, the book is accessible and well written. Pr Lessig makes his case by storytelling and by numerous examples, which should allow a large public to appreciate and understand the nature of the fight between content user and content producer.
Get this book ... it's worth every minute of your time !
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on January 6, 2002
Professor Lessig takes a very complex area, how should we value intellectual property in the internet, in publishing and copyright, in bandwidth and in a number of parallel areas, and presents a clear and thoughtful discussion of the consequences of alternative approaches.
What will happen to the, as he calls it, information commons, if we continue on the path we have adopted in the last few years on copyright law? What are the benefits and costs of open source and free code movements in the development of software? What are the possible alternatives to distribute bandwidth - from radio frequencies to the internet? Those are some of the issues presented in this book. All of it in an informative and interesting style.
This is not a polemic - as some treatments of intellectual property are - but rather a strong case for the efficacy of market based solutions that will offer us both more alternatives and a vibrant set of choices.
The only defect I could find in the book was the need to constantly jot down notes - ideas pop out of this book.
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I struggled with this book, in part because I really dislike the manner in which the law has been complicated to the point of unreason--beyond the ken of normal people. Having concluded the book, however, I have to say this is really worth the effort. The author is laying bare the raw threats to the future of the electronic commons. He discusses in detail how very specific government policies to sell and control bandwidth, and very specific corporate legal claims being backed by "the people's" lawyers within government, are essentially "fencing" the Internet commons and severely constraining both the rights of the people and the prospects for the future of ideas and innovation.
I am not a lawyer and I cannot speak to the points of law, but I am a voter and I can speak to that; what is happening to the Internet through legal machinations that are largely invisible to the people is a travesty, a crime against humanity even if permissible by law, and perhaps grounds for a public uprising demanding the recall of any official that permits and perpetuates the theft of the commons by corporations and their lawyers.
In the aftermath of 9-11, when our secret national intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities failed us, there is a need for a restoration of the people's intelligence in the aggregate as our first line of defense against enemies both foreign and domestic. I regard this book as a very serious, thoughtful, and well-intentioned "public intelligence estimate" and warning, of the harm to our security and prosperity that will ensue from a legal system that is now "out of control" and not being audited by the common sense of the people.
This book makes it clear that if the people are inert and inattentive, they will be enslaved, "virtually speaking." If you thought Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky was scarcy, or Norman Cousins' The Pathology of Power, then this book is for you.
Along with Internet standards acceptable to the people, we now appear to need a public advocacy group, funded by the people, to fight these corporate lawyers at every turn, whilst helping our less than stellar government lawyers cope....
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on February 7, 2002
[This draws on my review of "The Future of Ideas" published in the Los Angeles Times, 13 January 2002.]
A century ago, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered an address on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" that changed the way America understood itself. Turner cast the frontier's history in a new light, making it a driver of national history and culture and its closing a cause for alarm. Lawrence Lessig's "The Future of Ideas" could have been titled "The Significance of the Electronic Frontier in American History." Lessig sees the Internet as harboring a unique character that accounts for its importance and for which it is under attack. Like Turner's "frontier thesis," "The Future of Ideas" is a dazzlingly inventive work about familiar things. It deserves to change the way we think about the electronic frontier.
In Lessig's world, established corporations use any means to keep challengers down, including rewriting the rules and even outlawing disruptive innovation. He is decidedly NOT anti-capitalist, nor is he a Marxist, as another review assumes. Lessig loves the "creative destruction" that the Internet has spawned, and indeed sees the Internet as a realm where the right to innovate (the term Microsoft used to brand its defense in the federal antitrust suit) has been built-in, much as constitutional rights are guaranteed to citizens. (Lessig clerked for famed University of Chicago professor and circuit judge Richard Posner, and for Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, neither of whom is known for his Marxist leanings.)
It isn't obvious that the Internet should have become such a hotbed of creativity. For years, the phone system was far more attractive than the Internet to hackers like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. So why did the Internet become an arena for innovation in the 1990s? Not because it attracted venture capitalists and twentysomething CEOs who "got it," but because it is a "commons." Commons are things available to anyone who obeys the rules governing their use. Streets, highways and parks are commons open to everyone. The Internet's fundamental design was built around a common protocol that all computers could use, and it was designed so that the intelligence resided at the edges of the network, not in the center. This "end-to-end" architecture is the reverse of the telephone system, in which dumb devices--your phone--are connected by an intelligent network. Add the development of open source software and you have a commons of extraordinary value. Anyone who obeys the technical rules can develop services that run on it. No application can be excluded for political reasons or protectionism. Success is bestowed by the marketplace, not by government policy or corporate patronage. The phone system couldn't compete, not despite its centralized power, but because of it. To paraphrase Stewart Brand, innovation wants to be free.
But the Internet is endangered, Lessig says. The shift from an Internet running off telecom to broadband running through cable television wires threatens the open architecture because a cable company can design its system to work best with its own service provider, deny access to competitors or break software from other companies, and it will all be legal; no phone company could have ever done those things. Changes in copyright and patent law are also impoverishing the intellectual commons. Copyright originally lasted 14 years; today it can last 10 times as long, thanks to efforts by entertainment companies eager to defend their profits. Patent applicants have to reveal how their inventions work, but you can patent software without revealing the source code that would make it comprehensible to others, and the "fair use" of copyrighted materials is under attack as publishers develop technology to gain more control over content.
"The Future of Ideas" concludes with proposals to defend the digital commons. Given that we live in a world in which intellectual work is being fenced off and sold, do his ideas stand a chance? Lessig is pessimistic, but the last 20 years have seen some remarkable experiments in public policy inspired by iconoclastic thinkers: think of emissions trading and spectrum auctions. His ideas could provide a foundation for real action. Recent polls suggest that respect for the government and public services is rising, and few politicians would say they were against innovation and for special interests. It might be impossible to recover America's original great commons, the first frontier, but perhaps the electronic one still has a chance.
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on June 18, 2004
This is the best of Lessig's books that I've read so far. Lessig is one of the more articulate spokespersons for the movement to protect the public domain, which includes such groups as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Creative Commons, etc., although he may be more moderate in his views than some.
In this book, Lessig does a great job explaining why the Internet became what it is (or at least what it was in 1999 or 2000). Ultimately the success of the Internet resulted from the fact that no one was in control... But his most important message is that corporate interests don't necessary like what it is, and are using their considerable powers to change it into something more useful to them. This isn't because these companies are evil - their approach is completely rational and legitimate. However, their interests and the interests of the public probably don't coincide here.
The only way to ensure that future control and/or regulation properly balances public and corporate interests is to have an informed public. Professor Lessig's book is a great start.
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