An end run round copyright laws?

Legal activist Lawrence Lessig urges LinuxWorld attendees to use Creative Commons as route to "free culture."

SAN FRANCISCO--What Linux has done for operating systems, the Internet should do for content, a prominent lawyer and activist urged Tuesday.

Lawrence Lessig railed against prevailing copyright laws and urged use of his alternative creation, the Creative Commons license, speaking to attendees of the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here. The license permits content such as music, video, photos or text to be reused and augmented by others in the same way that the open-source and free software movement permits programs to be copied and modified.

Lawrence Lessig at LinuxWord

Stanford Law School professor Lessig noted that Department of Justice lawyers attacking Microsoft for its Windows monopoly fixated on IBM's vanquished rival, OS/2. But Linux showed that decentralized, nonproprietary operating systems were viable, he said.

"The fight for free culture is harder than the fight for free software. There were no laws against free software, but there are laws that essentially block free culture," Lessig said.

In Lessig's view of the world, lawyers, lobbyists and politicians are building a world of "read only" cultural content. It's "culture that, like potato chips, is to be consumed, not created," he said. In contrast, the Internet is fostering "read-write" content that is collaboratively produced and remixed by groups of people exchanging information.

"Copyright presumptively conflicts with the read-write Internet. Every single use requires regulation permission to be granted presumptively," Lessig said.

The Creative Commons license is essentially an end run around that copyright law, and Lessig boasted of its success in the last four years: As of June, 140 million content items on the Internet link back to the license, and Google and Yahoo search engines can filter for content using the license.

Lessig showed a variety of videos that mix animations or news footage with music to illustrate how copyrighted material can be combined to produce political commentary or humor. Such remixing will happen whether or not there's a legal framework for it, but Lessig argued in favor of building one that doesn't label the activity as piracy.

"You must ask whether the values built into our society--to ignore the rule of law--are the values we want to raise our children to understand," he said.

Free networks
Linux has demonstrated that it's possible to build operating systems and software that lets customers bypass Microsoft's control. The Creative Commons, Lessig hopes, will do the same in letting people exchange content without reliance on entrenched media powers.

At a lower level, the technology that routes data across the Internet, TCP/IP, is an open protocol. But the physical networks used by TCI/IP give industry players another point to control the flow of information, Lessig said.

Lessig argued that networks need not be closed and proprietary, however, because wireless networks provide a way to bypass the "last mile" of networks that today link customers to networking companies.

"Everyone is focused on the only possible way to build broadband infrastructure, to turn over the soul of the Internet to Comcast and AT&T. I wonder if we're not missing something," he said. "There's an explosion of municipal and ad-hoc wireless networks. The people building them will have no incentive to control how people use the network. As you see these miniclouds exploding above cities, the last-mile problem is solved."

Networking companies have lobbied aggressively against government-funded wireless networks, arguing that it competes with private-sector services. But people need to look carefully at what the role of governments in supplying infrastructure before labeling supporters of publicly funded wireless networks as Communists, Lessig said.

Nobody complains that there aren't private companies competing to build streetlights to supply photons when it's dark, Lessig said. "We have this weird disconnect between what we take for granted about local infrastructure services," he said.

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