When was the last time you saw a keynote speaker at a technology conference get a standing ovation? That honour was bestowed on Lawrence Lessig, the opening speaker at the recent LinuxWorld Conference in San Francisco, who called on the audience to join his fight to promote what he calls free culture.
Lessig, a professor at Stanford Law School, contends that current copyright laws have stifled creativity and resulted in a read-only Internet culture in which we only consume content, despite technology advances that make it easy to create and contribute to the culture.
He showed a slide of an architecture consisting of four layers: physical, logical, applications/operating systems and content. He equated TCP/IP with the logical layer, saying its standardization has been a blessing. And he said the arrival of Linux and other open source tools proves all of those people wrong who said these complex technologies could be developed only under tight, corporate control.
We need to bring that open source mentality to the content layer, he said, where control is held by publishers, movie studios and record producers.
Copyright law doesn't extend neatly to the digital world, he said, and the digital rights management tools the industry is trying to develop to maintain copyright control is dampening the growth of a rich read/write culture. Lessig showed several video clips demonstrating that people are using technology to create new content by using snippets of existing content.
"Our kids are doing it already," he said, "but under current law they are pirates, outlaws." What's more, he said that loosening the laws would drive an explosion in new business, everything from computer gear to new network services.
Regarding the latter, Lessig said the physical/network layer in his architecture is controlled by the likes of AT&T and Verizon. Lessig is a big proponent of Internet neutrality, but he wonders if free municipal Wi-Fi networks might end up delivering that old "Penguin magic", an open source-like alternative that will eventually reshape the rules.
He wants to create a free software culture that will facilitate this move. The crowd, apparently ready to oblige, stood and applauded.