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The Three Bears - Lessig on Property Rights

Posted by rpg on July 28, 2003 at 4:53 PM PDT

On July 24, Larry Lessig gave a talk at the Sun CTO All-Hands meeting. He gave a variant of his usual talk which is about the fact that creativity includes building on the work of others and that therefore intellectual property owners, like real property owners, should enjoy only a limited set of rights—a set that can be reduced over time as new societal needs are discovered. For example, until the famous US vs Causby et ux, a person's real property extended vertically to the periphery of the universe. The Causby's argued that their chicken farm was harmed when a new airbase was built nearby and the planes flying through their airspace caused their chickens to fly into walls, killing themselves.

Larry's talk also pointed out a fact I always love to hear: Disney's Mickey Mouse was created for Steamboat Willie, which was a parody of Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill Jr. The best part is that both the parody and original were released in 1928, which means that the Disney company knows of what it speaks when it worries about people ripping off the success of Mickey Mouse.

Larry, though, is not against property rights, but for a balance between the owner's rights and society's. This led him (and leads me) to *a*a, a fictitious computing language and platform. He pointed out that the law really only permits two extremes for *a*a: License it as open-source, thereby increasing the likelihood of it spreading to every platform and device on the planet, and also increasing the likelihood it would hijacked or embraced and extended; or keep it proprietary (owned by its inventor, *u*), thereby limiting its reach because people fear *u* would one day decide to monetize it at the expense of all those who worked hard to spread its adoption.

Larry proposed an alternative view: Put ownership *a*a into sort of conservancy which would protect its integrity just as *u* does now, but without the taint of being a (potentially) greedy for-profit company.

Like anything else, the issues are complex. It would be irresponsible, for example, for Disney to release Mickey to the public domain—Disney shareholders rightly see Mickey as a source of Disney value. On the other hand, the Disney company is superb at stealing. For something like *a*a, it's never clear when the language and platform is sufficiently established. Nor is it clear when control becomes self-strangulation.

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