WebReference.com: Scholars Discuss Open Code Benefits

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


“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

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