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WebReference.com: Scholars Discuss Open Code Benefits

Sep 15, 2000, 14:10 (1 Talkback[s])

Originally Posted on WebReference.com

Fans of free software and music found some allies this weekend who said if lawmakers don't understand technology they shouldn't try and regulate it.

Leading constitutional cyber-lawyer Lawrence Lessig led the discussion this past weekend on the future of IP rights and open code on the Net, launching the first John Seely Brown Symposium on Technology and Society here in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sponsored by the University of Michigan's School of Information and Dr. Brown, himself a U-M graduate, the symposium is the first of five annual lectures by internationally known scholars on the implications of technological advancement for societies.

Lessig, author of "Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace," said judges and legislators are making too many decisions too soon about certain technologies before they fully comprehend their long term effects on society. "The plea is that people have enough humility to understand that their first intuitions about technology aren't always correct," he said. Lessig cited a recent court decision against MP3.com as a reason to worry.

Open Code's Implications

On Saturday, three speakers discussed "The Implications of Open Source Software": John Seely Brown, U-M alum, chief scientist at Xerox, director of PARC, and author of "The Social Life of Information," Michael D. Cohen, Professor of Information at the U-M and author of "Harnessing Complexity," and Lawrence Lessig, famed Harvard Law professor, special master to the Microsoft trial, and author of "Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace." The roundtable was well-attended, with a standing room only crowd at Ann Arbor's Michigan Union. Here are some highlights: Lessig started off the discussion with a tribute to Richard Stallman, who preached the gospel of open code and its values: the importance of architecture, universal access, and facilitating sharing. Lessig called Stallman our "modern Moses" who succumbed to carpal tunnel syndrome. The torch was then taken up by Linus Torvalds of Linux fame. "In free software, there is an implied philosophical difference between sharable social services and controlled ones," Lessig said. Lessig gave a little history saying "The whole world of science is an open code movement. The university doesn't compile itself and only make itself available to those who compile it."

"Poems and songs exist in the commons - they are not controlled. Culture and science both are open source projects. However the history of the last 100 years are dominated by control and copyright - controlled by structures of control. To the extent that code is closed, that too is not something we have a right to use and access." This lack of access is the threat of closed code.

Lessig stressed that "Balance is important in each of these contexts. There is a cultural code space in the public domain where people have the right to share ideas and systems. Open code also makes transparent the structure that controls people's lives. Cyberspace will be defined by software and hardware. To the extent that code is closed, it is a sequence of rules that govern your life. Think about AOL, a closed system. What is being collected? There's no good way to answer that, the rules are secret and hidden. Important values are implied by open code, that's not the world we live in real space. Doors are not locked, we hope. Whether the rules that govern you are transparent, open or closed, the structure facilitates the ability of government to regulate." This is the main theme of his book "Code," reviewed in a previous Update:


"In the digital world there's not necessarily a link to taking physical property. In the commons, with cultural resources, you can take a song or poem and I still have it. Economists called these 'non-rivalrous goods,' which have weird economic properties. What rules do we make that create the greatest sharing and productivity but maintain the wide distribution of the original copyright holder? We need the ability to control the creation of structure to compensate people for what they do, without giving them control."

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