Idea Killers

THE FUTURE OF IDEAS

The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World

By Lawrence Lessig

Random House -- 352pp -- $30

It would be easy--but wrong--to guess that The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World might contain an analysis so broad as to be useless. However, Stanford Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig's concerns are specific and timely: He believes that the Internet and the innovation wave it spawned face problems far more serious than a stock market dip. He's right, of course, but this book doesn't cover nearly all of the reasons why.

In Lessig's view, law is at the heart of the dangers facing the Net--particularly copyright and patent law, which became far more restrictive during the 1990s. Existing industries, led by entertainment businesses, feared that the Web would let work be copied too easily, so they set out to stop even forms of duplication that had been protected as fair use. Earlier, copyright and patent law forced work more quickly into an intellectual "commons" where other innovators could expand upon it. In the arts, this kind of tinkering lets West Side Story borrow from Romeo and Juliet. In academia and commerce, it gives us innovations such as the Web itself, whose core technologies were never patented.

Once businesses established themselves on the Web, lobbyists pressed for--and got--longer copyright coverage, broader patents, and other changes that left less room for innovation. So little-guy innovators such as Napster Inc. and MP3.com Inc. got strangled while music companies, movie studios, and other companies that, in Lessig's view, had lost the innovative edge got to keep milking old business models. The upshot, Lessig says, is that society gets deprived of more dollars and culture than we may ever appreciate.

Since Lessig comes with a reputation as a Big Liberal Academic, the unexpected part of The Future of Ideas is its emphasis on open markets rather than government regulation. Indeed, he offers plenty of evidence that greater openness is one way to foster innovation. For example, Linux software has so far taken over 27% of the server operating-system market because its code is developed and refined under an "open-source" model that allows many users to improve the program.

But the book promises more than it delivers. While setting out to explain why the Net's prospects seem so much more limited than they did two years ago, it criticizes only a few of the culprits. Lessig skips the manipulation and collapse of the IPO and venture-capital markets. He even glosses over legal causes of the waning of Web innovation. Narrow interpretations of antitrust law, for example, led to a resurgent Microsoft Corp., which had a chilling effect on venture investment. Likewise, the failure of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 increased the power of the former Baby Bells and helped doom a generation of entrepreneurs.

In short, Lessig is right: Innovation is petering out, at least for a while, and law is a major, underappreciated reason why. Lessig's short list of forces and people at fault, though, leaves readers with a too-narrow view of what has gone wrong.

By Timothy J. Mullaney

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