SAN FRANCISCO–As a child, Lawrence Lessig spent hours clipping MLS listings and arranging them on index cards for his mother, a real estate agent. He suggested to his mom that computers could revolutionize this tedious process.

But then he learned about the layers of MLS rules and policies that stood in the way.

Today, Lessig, a Stanford Law School professor, author and copyright expert, is a radical free-thinker who promotes the ideas of people who’ve gone against the grain.

If you can’t beat innovation, then join the new revolution … or run, Lessig said. “Don’t fight it. You can only switch to it. That’s your option. That’s the only sensible option that you should embrace,” he said. There is always another option, he offered: “Run like hell.”

Unless, of course, you consider the innovation to be a threat to your own interests and you have the power to put it down. In this case, Lessig said, “You should work as hard as you can to crush innovation. Crush it until you can retire.”

Lessig’s revolutionary take on innovation was inspiring enough to force conservative businessmen to stand up and applaud after he spoke Friday morning at the closing session of Inman News’ Real Estate Connect 2004.

History has several examples in which innovation has been sidetracked and even sidelined by powerful opponents, Lessig said. “The lawyer culture is not necessarily in favor of the innovation culture,” he said, and battles over new innovations and innovation policies are all too often decided in legal circles. Current copyright law poses many constraints on new expression and limits the potential of new technologies, he added.

The original concept for the Internet was initially opposed by the telecommunications industry and shelved for about a decade before it was revived and literally took the world by storm, Lessig said. FM radio, though superior in some ways to the AM radio format, was similarly resisted by industry opponents.

There is the case of the consumer who decided he was going to teach his Sony Aibo, a robot dog, how to dance jazz. Lessig said the consumer, who offered advice over the Internet on how to teach the robot dog this new trick, received a threatening letter from a Sony lawyer charging that the consumer was not authorized to use Aibo in this way, even though jazz dancing is not a crime.

While technology is now more accessible for people to produce short films, dub over their favorite hit songs, and place the movies on the Internet, copyright law restricts a lot of this activity, Lessig said. “There is no permission granted in this space,” Lessig said.

Technologies developed to allow pay-per-song downloads, while they may curb online music piracy and appear to be a win-win situation for the music industry and consumers alike, could also lead us down a path of increasingly restrictive technologies that would limit sharing of creative ideas and other content. But Lessig does believe wholeheartedly in protecting copyrighted works with current commercial value from blatant piracy. “If you steal my book I hope you hang,” he said.

Internet innovations are often initiated by outsiders, not the mainstream, Lessig said. Young people and non-Americans have contributed significantly to the Internet’s growth, and will likely continue to drive its evolution, he said. “The Internet invites innovation from outsiders.”

Lessig said he has a pessimistic view of whether the powerful Hollywood lobby, Congress and other forces will loosen the grip on copyright law to promote more free expression. It goes back to Machiavellian thinking, he said – “innovation makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old regime.” Innovation is inevitable, though, he also said. And innovation often changes the world without the benefit of institutionalized support, though he said that sometimes it does need protection to grow and prosper.

“The entities able to stop the future have a particular characteristic,” he said. “They are a monopoly, or they’ve got movie stars.”

Lessig teaches law at Stanford Law School. His books include “Free Culture” and “The Future of Ideas.”


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