The prodigal son returns

By , 13 December, 2008, No Comment

Larry Lessig, whose work I’ve written about before, is packing his bags for a cross country schelp. He’s leaving his post at Stanford Law to chair an ethics center at Harvard.

For some time, Lessig has been synonymous with the West Coast attitude to IP law. As the home of Silicon Valley, the engineers whose inventions are rewriting our economy, and with its laid back libertarian social ideals, California made a natural base for the free culture movement Lessig championed.

But Lessig didn’t start there; he started among the more moderate academe in Cambridge, and even did a stint amongst the uber-capitalists at U-Chicago. Since he left, Harvard has been working overtime to cultivate its own IP department and the big coup came in 2007, when they picked up Yochai Benkler from Yale.

Benkler is the anti-Lessig: just as committed to open source culture, but in the sense of free markets, not free lunch. To Benkler, a decentralized, deregulated web creates new opportunities for competition and new sources of profit. [Note that his book is called the Wealth of Networks after Adam Smith.] To Lessig, an open web is pure collaboration, a system with the power to undermine profit motive itself. At least that’s how his early work reads, though he recently tried to back down from this position in an interview on Charlie Rose (maybe this was initiation for his new job). Over the years, then, Benkler’s view came to symbolize the East Coast approach to IP law as much as Lessig was the California hippie.

Now Harvard wants to be innovative, so they’re trying to collect all the lights of IP law. Is this the new link economy at work, forcing opponents to collaborate? It’s likely that copyright law (which really sucks right now) will be rewritten in the next few years. And Lessig and Benkler are surely the people who will be called in to help pols draft new laws. Will working side by side affect the legal ideas these two develop?

In any case, I’ll be curious to see how the two of them interact at faculty lunches.

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