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Dilemmas of Open Knowledge

Last night I had the privilege of watching an energetic, sharp-witted discussion hosted by Lawrence Lessig and +Jonathan Zittrain called "Dilemmas of Open Knowledge." By way of introduction, Lawrence Lessig ( was one of the founding board members of +Creative Commons, clerked for Scalia and Posner, and is one of the most brilliant activists out there for change in copyright and IP protection laws (particularly with regards to digital/online information). Jonathan Zittrain is a board member of the +Electronic Frontier Foundation, started the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, and recently had a memorable turn representing the anti-SOPA stance on the Colbert Report ( Basically, these are two of the best people you'd ever want to hear discuss subjects like copyright law and internet regulation, not least because they're very entertaining together.

You might expect a joint presentation from these two gentlemen to come down hard on the side of internet freedom and freedom of information - that they would preach about the dangers and inefficiencies of the current IP regulation systems with respect to emergent behavior. Actually, they were much more nuanced than that. As the title implies, they talked about situations where the free flow of information and technology could lead to very uncomfortable realities, or potential realities, and then analyzed the different ways we could react to these situations as a society.

The Great Mousepox Caper

Mr. Lessig presented a famous case involving the genetic manipulation of mousepox, smallpox's equivalent in mice. Nobody cares about eradicating mousepox - in fact, a few Australian scientists figured they'd try to increase its deadliness, use it to control Australia's rodent problem, and be hailed as heroes. By splicing and dicing mousepox virus and mail-ordered genetic material, they were able to increase the virulence of mousepox not only in normal mice, but also mice that were already resistant to regular mousepox. After the paper[1] was published, it didn't take long for people to realize that this method could be applied to other diseases, like, say, smallpox (provided you could get a hold of the smallpox virus). Mr. Lessig was using this example in teaching law school class a decade ago when the US was just going into Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction, and the fear that this information could be used for nefarious ends was palpable. The students had three successive types of reaction when asked to come up with ways to deal with the situation.

1. Control it - "Ban mail-order DNA!" "Scientific research in certain fields should be subject to government approval!"
(Counter-argument: With the availability of information on the internet, it's almost certainly impossible to prevent this kind of knowledge from spreading)

2. Defend against it - "Give space suits to 50,000 Americans so that even if everybody else dies, there will be enough people to restart the human race" (real suggestion)
(Counter-argument: (The virus has a latency period of 10 days, so people in the suits could have the disease without knowing it," etc.)

3. Make peace with it - Accept the fact that that the ability to create superviruses exists, and then change conditions of society, foreign policy, law, etc. such that the production and deployment of superviruses for nefarious ends becomes unnecessary and unappealing.
(Counter-argument: This is really hard)

When the law class finally came up with and agreed upon #3 as the best course of action, it became poignantly clear that invading Iraq was exactly the opposite of the methods a country would use to prevent people from wanting to attack it with superviruses. At any rate, Lessig's point was clear, and the audience agreed: in a "rough consensus" poll taken by humming (you hum when the option you favor is announced and the pollsters gauge the level of consensus), people were much more in favor of #3 than either of the other choices.

A New Dimension of IP Protection

Mr. Zittrain jumped in with a new dilemma - one that he promised would be more immediate and urgent to the audience, since there weren't many who were experienced in genetic manipulation ("not counting the procreative act"). The tech in question was 3D printing: equipment that allows people to create 3D objects from digital design files, through a machine whose "ink" is liquid plastic. 3D printers are a bit rare now, but will likely be commonplace in the next 5-10 years. Zittrain took the audience through the capabilities of 3D printers like the Makerbot, like the feature that allows you to scan an existing object and print a copy. He also pointed out that 3D printer design files could be copied and shared over the internet as easily as any other files. It doesn't seem like a life-or-death situation, but Zittrain argued that if you're a manufacturer of simple, everyday household items (like Legos), this could be your smallpox. The problem is IP infringement, and the current system of strictly enforcing patent holders' ability to control the (re)creation and distribution of their inventions is not designed to handle 3D printing. However, the system at its heart is around for a reason - it's important to have incentives for people to spend time and effort on innovation. How can we respond?

1. Control it - Require 3D printers to download license files from the internet that cause them to block the printing of items deemed infringing. Or keep 3D printers out of the home and turn them into a regulated service, like developing photos at a Fotomat.

2. Defend against it - Zittrain showed the audience the YouTube dashboard for media creators to track and take action against content that YouTube detects as potentially infringing. A similar solution could come into play for 3D printing.

3. Make peace with it - This one was a little tougher to imagine. The IP protection system would likely need to be reworked entirely to reward the abundance of a design/invention rather than the scarcity of it.

Just in case the audience was tempted to all hum for #3 again, though, Zittrain played devil's advocate. It wasn't hard to imagine being able to print a plastic widget that turns a semiautomatic gun into a machine gun (or, more relatably for the San Franciscan audience, a widget that lets you pump more than the maximum legal volume of water per minute through your showerhead). What about a fully plastic handgun with plastic bullets that could be taken through airport security? Shouldn't these applications of the technology be controlled?

It worked. Audience members (including this reporter) were much less enthusiastic about #3, many choosing to hum for #2 instead. It's difficult to come to terms with the fact that the freedom for anyone to create anything means the freedom for anyone to create anything. We were all grappling with not just the abstract ideas of change and information flow and freedom, but also the concrete image of being shot with a plastic bullet. It reminded me of the recent news regarding Mitt Altman's decision to leave Maker Fair because of the organization's new alliance with DARPA ( How can we come to a rough consensus as a society about what's appropriate to make using cheap and easily accessible technology, and how can or should our government (which DARPA is part of) be involved in negotiating the tradeoffs of free will vs. social contract?

In the spirit of the event, what do you all think? Is mail order DNA the same as a Makerbot? Should we deal differently with smallpox vs. plastic guns? How can we keep up with the possibilities and pitfalls of this explosion of open knowledge? Are there other types of reactions (or notable blends of reactions) to have on the table besides the ones Lessig and Zittrain discussed?

Danny Goldberg and Jonathan Zittrain debate Congress' pending Internet anti-piracy bill.
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I'm humming for #3 in both situations.

3D printing is another example of innovation that leads to a diminishing power to extract economic rents. There are legitimate concerns about the pace of this diminution and the scale of the disruption. Past technologies, from the printing press to the internet, have similarly disrupted the pricing power of existing creators. The transition phase is often contentious and jagged but there seems to be some consensus that we've generally moved to a place (post-innovation) where society is better off. I expect the same here.

As for changes to the IP systems, surely some changes will be needed but perhaps they won't be substantial. It's not inconceivable that a demand-based system, where consumers pre-pay for innovation (in a model similar to kickstarter), could become the norm. Also, I have a feeling that there will always be a sustainable market, regardless of the IP laws, for those creators who are dedicated to producing more value than they capture. Getting the ratio right is crucial but eventually this approach, seeking just a small slice of the value they create in order to (reasonably) fund past/future work, seems viable, even inevitable.

In the very big scheme (at least in economic terms) the story of innovation may be the story of eliminating monopoly power, of reducing rents. And I think this evolution can be progressive, we need not trade innovation and social progress for efficiency, ideally we'd have a nice mix of both.
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