Lessig calls for government to keep hands off P2P

Stanford University Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig has called for governments to steer clear of peer-to-peer legislation until the emerging model of computing has had more time to mature.

          Stanford University Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig has given a rousing speech, calling for governments to steer clear of peer-to-peer (P2P) legislation until the emerging model of computing, along with the Internet, has had more time to mature.

          Lessig received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his keynote address from the group gathered at the first O'Reilly Peer-to-Peer Conference. Evidently, many of the P2P entrepreneurs here agreed with Lessig's stance, hoping they can explore this burgeoning technology before too many limitations take hold.

          Many of Lessig's comments revolved around the lawsuit between maverick music-swapping service Napster Inc. and the Recording Industry Association of America Inc. (RIAA). Napster helped thrust P2P technology in front of the public eye but suffered a setback Monday when the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Napster infringes on record company copyrights.

          For Lessig, Monday's decision contradicts the Supreme Court's guidance on Internet issues.

          "I thought we knew the Internet was going to shake things up," he said. "I thought if we stepped in now to regulate we would screw things up. The Supreme Court has said you must wait until the Internet shapes out before you step in and mess it up."

          Lessig referred to past Supreme Court positions on Internet pornography, taxation and privacy, where the Court suggested that a wait-and-see approach to legislation might be best. The Court showed its reluctance to step in and potentially stifle innovation before the technology had a chance to develop, Lessig said.

          "The last three years have shown that we have not learned this lesson," Lessig said. "We have now seen spinning out across the world, lawyers attacking every single technology that disables the ability of existing interests to control how distribution will occur. Whenever there is a technology that disables control, they have used the legal system to quash it."

          While the RIAA and others argue that they protect the interests of artists and other content creators, Lessig countered with an assault against the corporations driving the case against Napster. Artists could benefit more by protecting their own rights and interests on the Internet, instead of allowing the recording industry to manage their intellectual property for them, the professor said.

          "If you think the companies who can benefit artists are located in Hollywood, you are wrong," Lessig said. "The Internet is the space where innovation can happen."

          While much of Lessig's speech discussed the Napster case, he said his recommendation for a hands-off approach apply to all types of P2P computing. Besides file-sharing applications like Napster, P2P includes any computing model that makes better use of direct connections between PCs on the Web to improve content distribution or make use of idle computing power.

          John Perry Barlow, cofounder and vice chairman of public advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, joined Lessig on stage during a question and answer session and supported many of the professor's views. Barlow wrote lyrics for the widely popular U.S. band The Grateful Dead, and cited the group's ability to achieve monetary success by giving their music away.

          The Grateful Dead allowed fans at their concerts to record and freely distribute tapes of the shows. While Barlow said the band was concerned with the concept at first, they later found it to be the best form of free publicity.

          "We didn't realize that what we were doing was inventing viral marketing," he said.

          While the Grateful Dead only managed one Top 10 hit during their career, they were the highest grossing band in the world for several years thanks to merchandising and ticket sales sparked by the free distribution of their music. In the late eighties and early nineties the group made millions of dollars before the death of lead singer Jerry Garcia in 1995.

          Some industry pundits have said the Napster model of file sharing could lead to similar gains for artists. After fans get a taste of a certain artists songs, they are more likely to go out and buy an album or two at a store, those pundits say. Additionally, groups might draw fresh interest and have a new crop of fans showing up at concert purchasing t-shirts and other items.

          "Part of Hollywood's problem is that they have a lousy relationship (with) both their creators and their audience," Barlow said. "If you are trying to regulate an economy of toasters and cars their model works well, but it does not work for an economy of ideas."

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