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Free Culture: Lawrence Lessig Keynote from OSCON 2002
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This is the world we live in now, which produces this continued growth of software patents. And here's the question: What have we done about it? What have you done about it? Excluding future competitors--that's the slogan, right? And that company that gave birth to the slogan that I just cited has only ever used patents in a defensive way. But as Dan Gillmor has quoted, "They've also said, look, the Open Source Movement out there has got to realize that there are a lot of patents at stake, and don't imagine we won't use them when we must."



Now, the thing about patents is, they're not nuclear weapons. It's not physics that makes them powerful, it's lawyers and lawmakers and Congress. And the thing is, you can fight all you want against the physics that make a nuclear weapon destroy all of mankind, but you can not succeed at all. Yet you could do something about this. You could fuel a revolution that fights these legal threats to you. But what have you done about it? What have you done about it?

(Audience Applauds.)

Second, the copyright wars: In a certain sense, these are the Homeric tragedies. I mean this in a very modern sense. Here's a story: There was a documentary filmmaker who was making a documentary film about education in America. And he's shooting across this classroom with lots of people, kids, who are completely distracted at the television in the back of the classroom. When they get back to the editing room, they realize that on the television, you can barely make out the show for two seconds; it's "The Simpsons," Homer Simpson on the screen. So they call up Matt Groenig, who was a friend of the documentary filmmaker, and say, you know, Is this going to be a problem? It's only a couple seconds. Matt says, No, no, no, it's not going to be a problem, call so and so. So they called so and so, and so and so said call so and so.

Eventually, the so and so turns out to be the lawyers, so when they got to the lawyers, they said, Is this going to be a problem? It's a documentary film. It's about education. It's a couple seconds. The so and so said 25,000 bucks. 25,000 bucks?! It's a couple seconds! What do you mean 25,000 bucks? The so and so said, I don't give a goddamn what it is for. $25,000 bucks or change your movie. Now you look at this and you say this is insane. It's insane. And if it is only Hollywood that has to deal with this, OK, that's fine. Let them be insane. The problem is their insane rules are now being applied to the whole world. This insanity of control is expanding as everything you do touches copyrights.

So, the broadcast flag, which says, "Before a technology is allowed to touch DTV, it must be architected to control DTV through watching for the broadcast flag." Rebuild the network to make sure this bit of content is perfectly protected, or amend it for . . . chips that will be imposed on machines through the law, which Intel referred to as the police state in every computer, quite accurately. And they would build these computers, but are opposed to this police state system.

And then, most recently, this outrageous proposal that Congress ratify the rights of the copyright owners to launch attacks on P2P machines--malicious code that goes out there and tries to bring down P2P machines. Digital vigilantism. And not only are you allowed to sue if they do it and they shouldn't have done it, but you have to go to the attorney general and get permission from the attorney general before you are allowed to sue about code that goes out there and destroys your machine . . . when it shouldn't be allowed to destroy your machine. This is what they talk about in Washington. This is what they are doing. This is, as Jack Valenti says, a terrorist war they are fighting against you and your children, the terrorists. Now you step back and you say, For what? Why? What's the problem? And they say, It's to stop the harm which you are doing.

So, what is that harm? What is the harm that is being done by these terrible P2P networks out there? Take their own numbers. They said last year [that] five times the number of CDs sold were traded on the Net for free. Five times. Then take their numbers about the harm caused by five times the number sold being traded for free: A drop in sales of five percent. Five percent. Now, there was a recession last year, and they raised their prices and they changed the way they counted. All of those might actually account for the five percent, but even if they didn't, the total harm caused by five times being traded for free was five percent. Now, I'm all for war in the right context, but is this the ground one stands on to call for a "terrorist war" against technology? This harm? Even if five percent gives them the right to destroy this industry, I mean, does anybody think about the decline in this industry, which is many times as large as theirs, caused by this terrorist war being launched against anybody who touches new content? Ask a venture capitalist how much money he is willing to invest in new technology that would touch content in a way that Hilary Rosen or Jack Valenti don't sign off on. The answer is a simple one: Zero. Zero.

They've shut down an industry and innovation in the name of this terrorist war, and this is the cause. This is the harm. Five percent.

And what have you done about it? It's insane. It's extreme. It's controlled by political interests. It has no justification in the traditional values that justify legal regulation. And we've done nothing about it. We're bigger than they are. We've got rights on our side. And we've done nothing about it. We let them control this debate. Here's the refrain that leads to this: They win because we've done nothing to stop it.

There's a congressmen: J.C. Watts. J.C. Watts is the only black member of the Republican Party in leadership. He's going to resign from Congress. He's been there seven and a half years. He's had enough. Nobody can believe it. Nobody in Washington can believe it. Boy, not spend 700 years in Washington? He says, you know, I like you guys, but seven years is enough, eight years is too much. I'm out of here. Just about the time J.C. Watts came to Washington, this war on free code and free culture began. Just about that time.

In an interview two days ago, Watts said, Here's the problem with Washington: "If you are explaining, you are losing." If you are explaining, you're losing. It's a bumper sticker culture. People have to get it like that, and if they don't, if it takes three seconds to make them understand, you're off their radar screen. Three seconds to understand, or you lose. This is our problem. Six years after this battle began, we're still explaining. We're still explaining and we are losing. They frame this as a massive battle to stop theft, to protect property. They don't get why rearchitecting the network destroys innovation and creativity. They extend copyrights perpetually. They don't get how that in itself is a form of theft. A theft of our common culture. We have failed in getting them to see what the issues here are and that's why we live in this place where a tradition speaks of freedom and their controls take it away.

Now, I've spent two years talking to you. To us. About this. And we've not done anything yet. A lot of energy building sites and blogs and Slashdot stories. [But] nothing yet to change that vision in Washington. Because we hate Washington, right? Who would waste his time in Washington?

But if you don't do something now, this freedom that you built, that you spend your life coding, this freedom will be taken away. Either by those who see you as a threat, who then invoke the system of law we call patents, or by those who take advantage of the extraordinary expansion of control that the law of copyright now gives them over innovation. Either of these two changes through law will produce a world where your freedom has been taken away. And, If You Can't Fight For Your Freedom . . . You Don't Deserve It.

But you've done nothing.

(Audience Applauds.)

There's a handful, we can name them, of people you could be supporting, you could be taking. Let's put this in perspective: How many people have given to EFF? OK. How many people have given to EFF more money than they have given to their local telecom to give them shitty DSL service? See? Four. How many people have given more money to EFF than they give each year to support the monopoly--to support the other side? How many people have given anything to these people, Boucher, Canon. . . . This is not a left and right issue. This is the important thing to recognize: This is not about conservatives versus liberals.

In our case, in Eldred [Eldred v. Ashcroft], we have this brief filed by 17 economists, including Milton Freedman, James Buchanan, Ronald Kost, Ken Arrow, you know, lunatics, right? Left-wing liberals, right? Freedman said he'd only join if the word "no-brainer" existed in the brief somewhere, like this was a complete no-brainer for him. This is not about left and right. This is about right and wrong. That's what this battle is. These people are from the left and right. Hank Perritt, I think the grandfather of cyberspace--the law of cyberspace running in Illinois--is struggling to get support, to take this message to Washington. These are the sources, the places to go.

Then there is this organization. Now some of you say, I'm on the board of this organization. I fight many battles on that board. Some of you say we are too extreme; you say that in the wrong way, right? You send emails that say, "You are too extreme. You ought to be more mainstream." You know and I am with you. I think EFF is great. It's been the symbol. It's fought the battles. But you know, it's fought the battles in ways that sometimes need to be reformed. Help us. Don't help us by whining. Help us by writing on the check you send in, "Please be more mainstream." The check, right? This is the mentality you need to begin to adopt to change this battle. Because if you don't do something now, then in another two years, somebody else will say, OK, two years is enough; I got to go back to my life. They'll say again to you, Nothing's changed. Except, your freedom, which has increasingly been taken away by those who recognize that the future is against them and they have the power in D.C. to protect themselves against that future. Free society be damned.

Thank you very much.

Lawrence Lessig is a Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and founder of the school's Center for Internet and Society. Prior to joining the Stanford faculty, he was the Berkman Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. His book, Code, and Other Laws of Cyberspace, is published by Basic Books.


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