You Must Read this Book: Lessig's Code

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Tim O'Reilly
May. 15, 2000 05:04 PM
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You Must Read This Book!

One of my all time favorite quotes is Edwin Schlossberg's "The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think." Well, I've recently read a book that gave me a whole new set of tools for thinking: Larry Lessig's awesome Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.

Here's the gist of what I took from the book: internet and open source folks tend to be techno-libertarians: Just keep the government off our backs, and let technologies and markets find their own way. Lessig makes an extremely powerful counterargument that government laws and regulations, social norms, technology, and markets are far more intertwined than that view would allow. In fact, he argues that, absent changes in regulation, changes in technology will undermine freedoms that we now take for granted.

Lessig gives a number of compelling examples. For example, he points out that John Gilmore's famous dictum that the Internet treats censorship as damage and routs around it may well have been true of the 1995 internet, but may not be true of the 2005 internet as the technologies that support ecommerce take hold. Once we are used to authenticating ourselves for ecommerce, we will be leaving tracks in cyberspace that could be used as tools of control rather than tools of freedom. Sure, people using anonymizers will be able to evade such strictures, but for the general run of users, the internet may become a very different place. (You should read Simson Garfinkel's Database Nation to see just how far we've already gone down this path!)

Similarly, Lessig points out that ebook technologies may undermine rights that we take for granted, such as our ability to lend a book to a friend, or to resell it when we've finished reading it. There are many such examples, from fields such as privacy, intellectual property, and more.

He doesn't advocate any particular solutions; rather he calls for us to think in a most strenuous way about the implications of technology and the implications of regulation, to decide what kind of culture we want to create, and to use whatever means seem most appropriate--laws (what he calls East Coast code) or technology (West Coast code) to build the world that we want to live in.

This is ultimately a book about constitutional law, and how we are to reinterpret our basic values in response to changes in the outside world. Lessig gives compelling historical arguments for how regulation often lags changes in technology. (For example, when telephone wiretapping was first introduced, the Supreme Court ruled that it wasn't an invasion of privacy, because the conventional conception of privacy went back to freedom from government coming into your home. No physical invasion, no privacy violation, the Supreme Court ruled. It wasn't until 40 years later that the Supreme Court reconsidered, once they saw the real implications of a pervasive technological change.)

What I especially loved about the book, though, was not the history or the deep thinking about current issues, but simply the tools that the book gave me for thinking about the interplay between the four forces outlined above.

Let me give you an example that I've been trying to get more people to think about: the implications for the free software movement of new ways of delivering computer applications. Richard Stallman came up with a legal way of protecting something that he considers a fundamental right: if you redistribute a piece of software under the GPL, you must make the source code available. But this legal protection depends on a technological underpinning that we all take for granted: that software needs to be distributed in order to be used. [1]

However, one of the sea-changes in the industry as a result of the web is that new applications are no longer being distributed as software packages, but as web services. You don't buy an e*trade software package, you connect to their web site. Many of the most exciting new software applications are web sites: MapQuest, Amazon, online stock trading, to name only a few.

Many of these sites are in fact built on a foundation of free or open source software, but there is no legal reason why they need to recontribute the changes they make to that software, since they never need to distribute it for it to be used.

Using the tools of Lessig's analysis, there are several possible approaches: we could rewrite the GPL (the regulations) to try to enforce the cooperative behavior that we want. Alternatively, we could promote the social norms that encourage sharing. We could work on technologies that would redefine what "open" and "free" mean for this new technological regime.

Personally, I'm very interested in these two latter approaches:

  • I've tried to evangelize the idea that companies that have built their infrastructure on open source should continue to support the communities on whose foundation they stand. (This was the point of my "don't piss in the well" comment to Amazon regarding software patents, as well as my attempts to publicize the use of open source within many of the hot new web services.) I do think that there's a lot of juice in this approach. For example, given how hard it is to find good people these days, I'd say that having a "good citizen" open source profile would be a great recruiting tool, worth a lot to any company that makes heavy use of open source tools.

  • I'm absolutely fascinated by the emergence of APIs for websites to use each other as if they were software components--open services rather than just open source. I do think that source sharing is still an unsolved problem for this space, but I do know that one of the fundamental bases for the open source movement was the modular UNIX architecture, in which people could write individual programs that just "magically" worked with other programs created completely independently. We're in the process of reinventing that loosely-coupled architecture for the web, and I think that technical change will result in some new ways of thinking about this whole problem.

I loved Larry Lessig's basic idea that you can't think of technical issues in isolation. His formulation of the four forces, and how they interact, is simple but profound. Read his book. It will give you some really useful tools for thinking about problems you face.


[1] Richard and I had a brief exchange about this in a Q&A session at the Wizards of OS conference in Berlin last summer. Richard's conclusion at that point was that he didn't see the problem. He may have changed his view since.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media Inc. Considered by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world, O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, Strata: The Business of Data, the Velocity Conference on Web Performance and Operations, and many others. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim is also a partner at O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, O'Reilly's early stage venture firm, and is on the board of Safari Books Online, PeerJ, Code for America, and Maker Media, which was recently spun out from O'Reilly Media. Maker Media's Maker Faire has been compared to the West Coast Computer Faire, which launched the personal computer revolution.

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