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Lawrence Lessig Answers Your Questions On Copyright, Corruption, And Congress

Publication Date: 
March 02, 2009
The New York Times - Freakonomics Blog
Stephen J. Dubner

Professor Lawrence Lessig answers reader questions and shares his insights regarding copyright, corruption and Congress in the New York Times' Freakonomics blog. Below is an excerpt of Lessig's Q&A with readers:

Andy O: What are your thoughts on the First Sale Doctrine and the general idea of portability with regard to e-books and other digital media? I am looking forward to the day when my ownership rights are not artificially restricted by the technological limits of the device on which I choose to read/view/listen to them.

Lessig: The First Sale Doctrine represents an important principle forgotten by copyright extremists — that copyright “protection has never,” as Justice Stevens put it in the Sony Betamax case, “accorded the copyright owner complete control over all possible uses of his work.” But in my view, to restrike a proper balance in the digital age, we need to move away from an architecture of copyright law that triggers regulation upon the copy. Instead, copyright law needs to focus on the economically relevant acts that need to be regulated to create the incentives copyright law should produce — and not on the (impossible, self-defeating, and absurd) objective of regulating every time a computer “copies” a work.

Don Matheson: Cleaning out the legislature-for-sale problem is a fabulous goal, but a “donor strike against congressmen who won’t support campaign finance reform”? This seems so naive as to be silly. The money that runs things is not going to stop buying congressmen because the congressmen won’t outlaw the buying of themselves. The more you get individuals to follow your lead, the easier it will be for the big buyers to make the deal at a lower rate, as the importance of their big donations grows as a percentage of the whole. I hope I am missing something here.

Lessig: Answer 1 - Never underestimate the importance of naïveté in launching critical political reform.

Answer 2: For the whole of the 102 years since Teddy Roosevelt suggested such an idea, I would have said you were right. But for the first time in our history, I genuinely believe we’re close to building the majority we need to bring about this change. First, the problem has never been this bad. Second, everyone in Congress thinks the current system is broken. Third, no one worth paying attention to in Congress doesn’t view the enormous time spent fund raising — 30 percent to 70 percent of their time — as a complete waste. We’re facing the most important problems our nation has known in a generation, and many are spending most of their time raising money to run for re-election.

More importantly, despite the mistake (of principle) he made in turning down public funding for his own race, I believe Obama will be an important champion of citizen-funded elections, when the revised form of that proposal gets introduced (probably within two weeks). He was a cosponsor of the bill in the last Congress; the only changes will be to add the ability of Congressmen to raise unlimited amounts from citizens contributing $100 or less.


PCB: You have said (in testimony to the F.C.C. panel in Palo Alto last summer) that net neutrality should not be interpreted to ban differentiated services within the networks of ISP’s. Many other advocates of net neutrality seem to rule this out. What are you advising the new administration do with respect to this issue and what do you think they are likely to do?

Lessig: My position has always been that we should regulate as lightly as we can to get a network where the business model of network owners is abundance, not scarcity. That means that network owners aren’t pricing access and striking exclusive deals with content providers with the purpose of exploiting (and hence profiting from) scarcity.

So as I said at the F.C.C. hearing (and two years before during at least three events in Washington, D.C.), my judgment is that a ban on discriminatory access is all that it necessary to achieve this objective. But if I’m wrong, I would not oppose more regulation. In my view, the strategy should be to speak clearly (neutrality), but deploy as light a regulatory touch as necessary.