Review of Lawrence Lessig’s The Future of Ideas

January 24, 2002 by Lucas Hendrich,

The fertile ground of the Internet has led to countless innovations, eliminating physical barriers and allowing a borderless, transparent source of information to flourish. How will the story of the Internet be played out in the 21st Century?

Originally published January 24, 2002 at

Lawrence Lessig’s The Future of Ideas: The fate of the commons in the connected world is a clear, concise vision of what the Internet is, its history (and its prehistory, in real-world analogs of public spaces), the legal issues that surround and permeate it, and where the Internet and intellectual property may be headed.

One of Lessig’s objectives is to make sure we understand the technical revolution that created the Internet. He guides the reader through its history, explaining technical details in a measured, lucid fashion often grounded in real-world metaphors for the non-technical. In an area of writing that often includes fever-pitched techno-enthusiasm and evangelism, Lessig’s explanations of MP3 technology, the difference between GPL and open source, TCP/IP and other elements of the online world help diffuse the mystery behind jargon that furthers the digital divide between its initiates and those to whom it is unfamiliar.

This history lesson in The Future of Ideas is necessary for Lessig to alert us to legal developments that, in his view, threaten how we experience the Internet–that, if left unchecked, could change the Internet from an open, democratic (albeit chaotic) and interactive universe of data to something resembling closed-circuit television.

For Lessig, the Internet represents a “commons,” a public space that is shared by those who use it and owned by none. Its use is regulated, to greater and lesser extents, by two forces–the strong hand of the state and the invisible hand of the market. He attributes innovations born over the wires of the Internet, as well as the birth of the Internet itself, to its public, common nature. Roads are the metaphor he employs to illustrate the benefit of shared, unowned spaces: the vehicles that use them are owned and must meet state-imposed regulations, but the road itself only enhances the value of other materials–vehicles or property–which use it.

A facet of this commons is that the road itself is simple and unintelligent, like the TCP/IP based architecture of the Internet. By placing intelligence in the vehicles–the servers and PCs at the end of the wires, the network itself remains unintelligent, and therefore cannot discriminate what travels over it. This feature of the Internet–what Lessig terms e2e, for end-to-end–has kept it a common space. This space is layered, and using NYU law professor Yochai Benkler’s model, Lessig reduces the Internet to three layers–physical, code and content. The physical layer has been built e2e, which allows the code and thus the content to flow freely thereby enabling collaboration and innovation .

Lessig summarily shows how each layer of the Internet is being changed by forces of the state, the market, and the effect of the two in concert. The result is ownership of layers, a phenomenon which Lessig believes will by its very nature add intelligence to these layers–thus changing indiscriminate flow of information into something that can be filtered or directed.

One example Lessig cites in terms of the physical layer of the Internet is the merger of AOL and Time Warner, which joins America’s largest ISP (in terms of membership) with a provider of media via cable. Prior to this merger, AOL supported “open access” to broadband cable networks, and government intervention to ensure the separation between the media content flowing over broadband lines and the choice of ISPs available to the consumer to gain access to the Internet. Post-merger, AOL’s stance is to let the market regulate itself. The danger? As Lessig quotes World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee, ” keeping media and content separate…is a good rule in most media. When I turn on the television, I don’t expect it to deliberately jump to a particular channel, or to give a better picture when I choose a channel that has the ‘right’ commercials.” He uses the cases of Napster,, Microsoft, and others to illustrate the shifting nature of the code and content layers of the Internet as courts interpret patent and copyright law in ways that, Lessig argues, restrict public use and distribution of code, content and ideas themselves.

Lessig provides suggestions for reform to existing law that would maintain this balance between public and private ownership of virtual space (and the ideas that grow there), thus keeping the Internet fertile. Among many examples is one in which copyrights on software expire after five years; it can be renewed if the author wishes, but will become public (source code and all) if the author does not act. This seems like common sense when one considers how quickly software can advance in five years (he points out how absurd it is that existing law protects software for up to ninety-five years, far past the point of obsoletion).

Ray Kurzweil, in his debates with Bill Joy (and others) over the possible futures of technology, often uses the phrase “promise and peril” to describe the double-edged sword of technological progress (see Promise and Peril and, more recently, Are We Becoming an Endangered Species?). How can the growth of future technologies be promoted without the risk of destructive misuse? A fine balance between private competition and government regulation must be struck in order to keep technology from being exploited for destructive ends.