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Lessig Makes Plea For Read/Write Internet

SAN FRANCISCO -- Stanford Professor Lawrence Lessig warned that today's fast-growing, free-wheeling Internet is threatened by network providers who want to control innovation and commerce on the Internet much the way AT&T once controlled the phone networks.

Speaking at the Open Source Business Conference here, Lessig said society has to decide if it wants to continue down the current path of a "read-only" Internet or embrace what he called a "read/write Internet" with broad access to content and the ability to legally build on the creative works of others.

Lessig did say he wasn't in favor of content being entirely proprietary or entirely free, but he fears the repercussions of the former being the dominant business model.

He cited Apple's popular iTunes music store as a perfect example of the read-only Internet.

"It's a massively efficient way to get content to consumers they can buy easily," said Lessig.

And the Internet is enabling other new streams of commerce for content providers. Lessig noted for example that Amazon is experimenting with a pay-per-page model for books.

"This read-only Internet is supported by copyright law to perfectly control how people get access," he added.

Publishers are increasingly using digital rights management to protect their content from being copied or illegally resold, a trend Lessig said is inevitable but that threatens to stifle innovation.

"Now the default is control. Copyright presumptively regulates everything, and the law supports this control over the use of culture."

One example he noted is the rise of numerous sites devoted to a new twist on Japanese anime that reuse the original animation but dub in music and other soundtracks in amusing ways. But these sites face legal challenges from the anime owners.

Likewise musicians have been sued over remixing content from earlier works into their own creations.

There are laws governing so-called "fair use" of content for satirical and other uses such as news reporting. "Fair use is important but it's not enough," said Lessig.

In the next five years we have the opportunity to make it continue, but right now fair use is the right to hire a lawyer. In 10 years [if current trends hold] ... unless you're a hacker, you won't have the opportunity to fair-use access.

Lessig said record companies have a "good but not great argument" that if content is distributed free it upends their business model.

"It's never been the policy of the U.S. government to choose business models, but to protect the authors and artists," said Lessig. "I'm sure there is a way for [new models to emerge] that will let artists succeed. I'm not sure we should care if the record companies survive. They care, but I don't think the government should."

Lessig argued in favor of keeping regulation and control of the Internet to a minimum. He said the open architecture of the Internet lets people who don't have power design great innovations, and that private or government control would stifle those opportunities.

Lessig gave several examples, including ICQ (the first instant messaging service, sold to AOL for $400 million), which was created by an Israeli high school student; Hotmail was created in India and Google by two Stanford students.

"All the innovation is being done by kids and non-Americans," he said to laughs and applause from the audience. "Innovation is at the edge of the network."

He sited a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust that said 50 percent of American teenagers have created and shared content on the Internet. Speaking in favor of continued easy access to online content Lessig said: "Less control produces more creativity."