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The Future of Ideas

I’m depressed. I have been reading Lawrence Lessig’s ‘ The Future of Ideas’, his sequel to ‘Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace’ and it seems much of what he predicted and warned against at the start of the Internet revolution is slowly coming to pass, regardless of the march of Open Source computing.

Lessig, who I met at Cambridge in the summer of 2000, argued in his first book, that the common belief that cyberspace could not be regulated, “That it is, in its very essence, immune from government’s or anyone else’s control”, was a fallacy. His thesis was that “cyberspace has no nature”, it has only code which can on the one hand, create a free environment and on the other a place of “Exquisitely oppressive control”.

In ‘Code’, written in the heady days before the Internet bubble burst, he warned that we would have to choose what kind of Internet we wanted and what freedoms we will guarantee. These choices he wrote are all about architecture and the code that will eventually govern the world of the Internet and who will control it and for what purposes?

Four years on and Lessig is back. He argues that free resources are crucial to innovation and creativity but that the revolution that produced armies of dot coms, has produced a counterrevolution, a post-modern protectionism, which is stifling innovation as large corporations use their influence to ring fence their intellectual property, manipulating the law and undermining the open technology of the Internet to suit their own purposes; rewriting copyright and patent legislation to rigidly tax and control the flow of ideas and materials.

As one of the world’s most respected law professors, Lessig is remarkably well qualified to deliver an opinion and we are seeing the evidence all around us today. Large IT vendors are falling over one another to re-engineer any concept of free expression out of the Internet in Asia, while in the United States, a government, hypnotised by the lobbying influence and funding power of big business is sleepwalking into a future defined not by information wealth but by digital rights management.

Inevitably, I suspect, in Lessig’s work we can also witness the future of the Open Source movement, a taste of which we have seen in the recent SCO legal action over Linux. ‘Open’ and ‘Free’ are no longer expressions that sit comforatbly in the minds of the legislators on Capital Hill or with the companies that fund Presidential elections. Already, Microsoft has sought patent protection in Europe and New Zealand for word processing documents stored in XML format. Microsoft argues that there is nothing sinister in this move , explaining that it well "innovate above the standard just as other companies will do in an effort to seek differentiation, address customer needs, add competitive value, etc.," and pointing-out that other companies, such as Sun Microsystems, IBM and Hewlett Packard all have done the same.

However, I thought XML was an ‘Open’ W3C standard and perhaps moves like this go some way towards supporting the suspicion that expressions such as ‘Open’ and ‘Free’ may prove ambiguous and have a rather limited shelf life on the Internet of the future and may be replaced at the very least by a form of patent supported DRM-driven taxation or restriction outside of a pay per view digital economy.


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