Hard Choices for Geeks

Few of the geeks who develop Internet applications care about politics. We figure that if the politicians write bad law, we can get around it.

Most of those who are active in politics, meanwhile, have an unshakable belief that what they do matters, that if they write something into law it will be followed, that lawbreakers will be punished or at least lose “political viability within the system.”

There’s a collision coming between these attitudes. The copyright laws have changed, and the penalties have been raised. The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the 1998 No Electronic Theft Act are being consistently interpreted to mean that certain software development is criminal and that referencing that development is also criminal.

To any geek worth his or her pocket protector, this is anathema. Geeks are actively debating whether they should fight to change the law or just fight the law by ignoring it.

The debate was fully joined at last week’s peer-to-peer summit in San Francisco. Attorney Lawrence Lessig begged the developers to get involved in politics, to overturn the most noxious aspects of the new laws before people get hurt.

As a journalist who respects law (and copyright), I have a lot of sympathy for this view. The new laws threaten to hamstring all technology development, Lessig warned. If new software is outlawed, only outlaws will have new software.

John Perry Barlow — former Grateful Dead lyricist, cyber-libertarian, and cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation — took the other side. “The only way to deal with law on the Internet is to ignore it flagrantly,” he said. That’s a neat summary of the geek mentality.

Microsoft, Intel, and IBM are all working to build support for copyright into basic computer hardware and software, and the question now is whether geeks who create workarounds should go to jail. Researchers from Rice, Princeton, and Xerox PARC, fearful that present law might do just that, have already halted work on a project they felt succeeded in breaking the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), the industry’s first effort in this direction.

I think it’s up to those of us in technology marketing to create business models that will allow both the First Amendment and copyright laws to be respected. We also need to bring these two sides together before they blow up what we have.

There is no doubt that the law is on the side of copyright holders and can be tightened further. There’s also no doubt that the future should never be mortgaged to the past, that you can’t give so much protection to reading that writing becomes impossible.

But that’s just what we’re facing. Few outside technology marketing, however, can really see both sides in this debate. We depend on the geeks, and we depend on the market. It’s up to us to find ways in which both can get along.

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