1 Unit overview

This unit explains how the internet has enabled massive innovation. By analysing the (sometimes controversial) case law, we examine how this internet innovation has affected certain kinds of businesses, the response of those businesses, and the social and economic significance of this.

This course will not make you an expert in internet law. It would be impossible to cover all the relevant laws and cases in a short course such as this. We have, therefore, had to be selective about what we have included and we have sometimes simplified complex concepts. Nevertheless, you should gain a good appreciation of the main ideas, and the necessary skills and knowledge to investigate further areas of interest to you.

One of the most important topics in this unit is the notion of the ‘commons’ put forward by Lawrence Lessig, the author of The Future of Ideas.

To make things we need resources, including intangible resources like information and ideas. Authors, inventors, blues musicians – creators of all kinds – use language, stories, professional skills, musical notes and chords, facts and ideas, all building on the work of earlier creators. Many of these resources are free. A public highway, a public park, Fermat's last theorem or an 1890 edition of a Shakespeare play are all free to use or copy. These free resources are all part of what Lessig's book refers to as the ‘commons’.

We will look at this idea of a commons in more detail later. For the moment, just think of it as the raw materials for generating ideas or creative work, such as inventions, music or art.

"Nobody can be so amusingly arrogant as a young man who has discovered an old idea and thinks it is his own."

(Sydney J. Harris (1917–1986), American journalist and author)

As you read through this unit and Lessig's book, you might find that the writing is quite formal. Actually, both are much less formal than some of the websites you will encounter. Some of the language in this area is legalese, or complicated legal jargon, a way of communicating that many find long-winded and convoluted. It may take you some time to read some of the material, so to help we have often summarised the main points for you.

Lawyers are required to use words with great care and precision to put forward a case and to counter arguments. Advocates with an agenda (for example those who want copyright law restricted or those who want it expanded) use words as a tool to win us over to their side. It is important to learn to identify opinion and propaganda, and distinguish them from the facts of a case. Later in the unit we will look at some legal cases in detail and explore the tactics used by advocates to persuade us of the merits of their case.

Groucho Marx, on being warned that the name ‘Casablanca’ belonged to Warner Brothers: ‘You claim you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without your permission. What about Warner Brothers – do you own that, too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were.’

Note: Much of this unit is based on the Open University course T182 The law, the internet and society, which is no longer offered for credit, and on The Future of Ideas by Lawrence Lessig, linked below. Though we have made a small number of minor amendments, the material was last substantively updated in the early part of 2005, so bear in mind that some of the cases, laws and technologies discussed will have moved on since then. Lessig's ideas, however, and therefore the bulk of this unit, remain every bit as important today as when his book was first published in 2001.

You can visit Lawrence Lessig's The Future of Ideas website at the-future-of-ideas.com.

The study calendar below is provided for anyone who would like to take a rigorous, systematic approach to working through the material, and for teachers considering using the material in whole or in part. The unit is structured so that study of the material is carefully paced over 10 weeks. The study calendar and list below should give you a general idea of the kind of expectations we had of students who took the original T182 course for credit.

Study calendar
Study week Unit section The Future of Ideas chapter
Week 1 1 Unit overview
2 The explosion of the internet Chapter 1
Week 2 3 Commons, layers and learning from history Chapters 2 and 3
Week 3 3 Commons, layers and learning from history Chapters 2 and 3
Week 4 4 The revolution Chapters 7, 8 and 3
Week 5 4 The revolution Chapters 7, 8 and 3
Week 6 5 Copyright wars Chapter 9
Week 7 6 Constraints on behaviour
Week 8 7 The counter-revolution Chapter 11
Week 9 7 The counter-revolution Chapter 11
Week 10 8 The architecture of the internet
9 Unit summary

As you work through the unit we suggest using your Learning Journal to record your thoughts and views on the questions and issues raised in the unit, including links to websites of interest.

In any one week of studying you might expect to:

  • read and make notes on material from the unit;

  • read material from The Future of Ideas;

  • do related activities or self-assessment questions (SAQs);

  • find further information on the web on some aspect of internet law or policy;

  • put these links with your own thoughts into your Learning Journal.

2 The explosion of the internet