Lawrence Lessig’s SCL Lecture

April 30, 2008

The view from the Institution of Engineering and Technology is of the River Thames rolling on – just as it rolled on in the days of Ohm, Faraday, Kelvin and Ampere, whose portraits looked down on me as I listened to Professor Lessig. We tend to think that the Internet and the widening of PC applications will roll inexorably on too; those of us who listened to Lawrence Lessig’s lecture have started to wonder if it really will – and who will control the direction of the roll if it does.

I am not going to pretend to do justice to Professor Lessig’s argument – I am not even sure that the word ‘argument’ does it justice. It was a complex progress through framework, stories, a pathology and, finally, what he called an argument. And it was a performance too – for the Lessig style is to incorporate images, clips and single words or phrases as part of a presentation in an original and arresting way that had his listeners enthralled. You might want to download the full Lecture here; this is audio only, the slides are not yet available.

The essence of what he concludes is that the Internet is under threat from those with special interests to protect or those, especially in government, who seek increased control. The fear is that the cataclysmic collapse of the Internet, which may one day be produced if zombies, botnets and organised crime take it over for a period, will precipitate a massive overreaction – and indeed that that ‘overreaction’ is planned for by those who see the cataclysm as a welcome excuse or lever to gain what they really want. Professor Lessig made frequent reference to the thinking and conclusions of Jonathan Zittrain, whose new book on the Internet’s future is published in the UK on 1 May.

One of the elements that underpins the argument is the considerable evidence that supports the view that government decision makers are either stupid or corrupt. Not blatantly corrupt in a Third World bribe way but ready to do what one US politician was advised to do – ‘lean to the green’, ie towards the source of campaign funds. Subtle corruption arises too from the acknowledged effectiveness of lobbying – Mickey Mouse has better funded lobbyists than open source and it shows. With the odd exception, one tends to concede that politicians are not stupid so how does one explain the worldwide trend towards retrospective extension of copyright terms when there can be no conceivable advantage to the wider public interest – it won’t, as Professor Lessig observed, persuade George Gershwin to write more music nor will it turn Cliff into Elvis. Or how to explain the US’s Federal Nutrition Board embrace of 25% sugar as being consistent with a balanced diet?

The copyright issues are both part of the argument and a substantial sideshoot, betraying Professor Lessig’s long-standing interest in copyright. What had me nodding with great vigour was Professor Lessig’s observation that modern digital technology raises issues of copyright with every use. By comparison with our use of a book or a record, where copyright law intervened on the rarest of occasions, the intrusion of copyright into every-day life and the most mundane of activities is an unintended consequence of the interaction between law and technology and has not been the subject of any apparent thought by those in power.

The failure to vary the model to take account of transformational uses of protected material, amusing examples of which lightened the lecture, is a failure to grasp a reality. Those transformational uses are a new type of creative outlet and are likely to be crushed if the model of copyright is applied in an inflexible and short-sighted way. Professor Lessig was at pains to point out that he was no copyright abolitionist but he could see that the inflexibility in the current regime was a driver that undermined the credibility of copyright, although not as yet its practical effectiveness. The tendency (with which I have some sympathy) is to think that it does not matter because the creative users will ignore the law, and may technologically outstrip its plodding enforcers, but Professor Lessig gave illustrations of the impact on institutions which may be hamstrung in laudable new initiatives and of its impact on innocent (in common-sense terms at least) developments.

There was a call to arms in the closing words – but the battle is in making sure that those who influence policy are better informed. Those who influence policy in this context range from legislators to the general public (perhaps especially the latter). The message to get across is that there are means available which can both improve security and further the protection of privacy. The problems, which are freely acknowledged by Lawrence Lessig, can be dealt with by improvements which do not undermine the Internet’s many positives – solutions must be implemented to allow the good to survive.

The post-Lecture reaction, at drinks and over an excellent buffet, was of universal praise and not a few were genuinely inspired – and, if Faraday and Ampere will forgive me, electrified. If I must strike a sour note, it would be that Profesor Lessig may not have clearly identified the enemy in the battle that he wants us to join. But perhaps that was because some of the enemy must surely be in any SCL audience.

The Lecture was prefaced by a fitting tribute from Sir Brian Neill to Alan Brakefield, in whose memory it was held. Alan’s many years of service as SCL Treasurer were acknowledged but it was rightly stated that his contribution was much greater than that suggests – always supportive and the very backbone of the Society. It was wonderful to see that his widow Joyce was able to attend the event.


The MP3 audio version of the Lecture is available here.