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Fighting for the Freedom to Tinker

Edward Felten, a computer-science professor at Princeton University's Computer Science, specializes in security issues and is at the front line of the debate about intellectual property and copyright in the Digital Age. In 2001, the recording industry threatened to sue Felten and seven other researchers under the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act for planning to release a paper outlining security flaws in copy-protection technology.

The researchers filed a lawsuit asking the court to rule on whether publishing the paper was legal, causing the industry to back off. Now, Felten actively tracks other attempts to regulate technology through his Freedom to Tinker blog. Felten spoke with BusinessWeek Department Editor Heather Green about the ongoing debates around intellectual property and copyright. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: What's the greatest threat to a tech recovery?

A: That people will forget where innovation comes from. It comes from small companies and people you haven't heard of. Innovation happens because there are people out there doing and trying a lot of different things.

Q: From what you've written in the past, your concern appears to be that companies that control the intellectual property (IP) upon which new innovation is based are clamping down on how individuals can tinker with that IP. So how is that related to the threat you just described?

A: If you get into a mindset that you have to plan your way out of the slowdown, that government or some big companies should [control innovation,] then you fall into a trap.

These are the issues I've been tracking around regulation and law with technology. There's a danger that [the government] will end up trying to pick winners or trying to clear the path for a particular industry segment to move into an area or protect an industry segment, rather than saying, let's keep the path open for everyone. Growth comes out of a healthy competitive atmosphere, not trying to choose a particular path forward. A lot of regulation we're seeing right now is, or pretends to be, motivated by concern about intellectual property.

Q: What kind of situation has that led to, where people want to experiment and do research but copyright holders are clamping down?

A: This is the copyright wars. We're now in a situation where policy isn't just about copyright, it's about cultural and industrial policy as well. That's the point of the trend to try to defend the interests of copyright owners, which are legitimately threatened, by trying to slow down or control the development of some general-purpose technologies. There are bills in Congress that would restrict how you can use downloads or peer-to-peer software, which are motivated to protect copyright owners. You end up regulating a lot of perfectly legitimate activity when you do this.

You see the same debate around software that protects anonymity. In making policy designed with copyright in mind, you end up making decisions about whether other important technologies, such as privacy-enhancing or file-search technologies, should be encouraged or discouraged. A collision is happening between creativity and protecting IP.

Q: Are you more discouraged about this than you had been in the past?

A: What has happened in the last year or two is that the intensity of the debate has increased on both sides. The large copyright owners are willing to take stronger measures to protect their interests -- but also the people whose interests would be harmed are kicking up a fuss.

I'm more hopeful [because of the intensity of the debate]. Before this, I thought some law or regulation would be imposed without real debate. Now when something new comes along, there'll be debate. The decision [that gets made] may not be the right one, but at least we can have the debate.

Q: Do you think intellectual property changes when it becomes digital?

A: It has to change. And especially for copyrighted works, the business aspects have to change. [With digital material] everything becomes cheaper and easier -- any kind of processing, distribution, and use. Even if there were no illegal copying, the advent of digital distribution will put a lot of stress on the movie and music industry. When the distribution costs comes down, that puts more price pressure on the rest of the cost.

When you buy a CD, $10 goes for distribution and delivery of that product -- printing, shipping, [the] record store clerk. The other $7 or $8 of the prices doesn't seem so high. If it costs cost 5 cents to get something to the consumer, people are less happy about the other $7 or $8.

Q: How will the business models change?

A: People want access to a celestial jukebox. The cost of delivering that isn't as high as you would think. We will go to a model where people pay a flat fee for unlimited access, because it costs the same to provide ubiquitous access to all material as it does having restricted access to some stuff.

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