Stanford Law School
Stanford Law SchoolPOSITION: Professor
CONTRIBUTION: His first book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, challenged what he sees as growing threats to free expression online. His upcoming The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World argues that old industries are using Old Economy laws to stifle innovation.
CHALLENGE: To persuade Congress and the courts to adopt laws that balance the rights of old industries with society's interest in encouraging innovation.
Stanford Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig is on a losing streak. He sided with the Net music-swapping service Napster Inc. in its doomed court battle against the record companies, which sued for copyright violations. He backed hackers who posted code on the Web that let people duplicate movie DVDs. A court nixed that. And he sided with the government in its antitrust case against Microsoft Corp. The initial ruling to break up Microsoft is expected to be reversed on appeal.
So why is Lessig smiling? Because he predicted this kind of thing would happen. The 39-year-old constitutional lawyer has made his mark as a determined fighter for what he thinks of as a "free" Internet, where sharing of technology and information lets innovators piggyback on each other's work to create an outpouring of economic value. He believes that approach helped turn the Net into an explosive force. He warns it's slipping away.
Lessig's clarion call is at the center of his upcoming book, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. He argues that legal mistakes, such as overly strong interpretations of intellectual-property law, are strangling innovation. Whether government actively meddles or keeps its hands off, Lessig says, the effects favor established players at the expense of innovators and upstarts. His goal: Laws and court rulings that would promote, and sometimes mandate, broader licensing of technology. He wants to restructure intellectual-property rules so that ideas are more quickly released into an intellectual commons where others can improve upon them.
Lessig has a strong track record. He successfully pushed for a ruling that forced AOL and Time Warner to open the Time Warner cable system to competitors as a condition of their merger. And the judge heeded him in the Microsoft case. "The fact that elites think Larry understands what he is doing causes judges to turn to him, and it gives him clout," says Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. If Lessig wins points now, the Internet could be "free" for a good while longer.