Architecture, Law, and Innovation

I just got off the phone with a law scholar whose research focuses on innovation. He told me that, on his desk, at the top of his short stack of new books to read, is Barbara van Schewick’s celebrated new book, Internet Architecture and Innovation. I wasn’t very surprised: it seems everyone interested in Internet law and policy or innovation is talking about the book. Harvard’s Larry Lessig recommended it in the New York Times; Cardozo’s Susan Crawford, formerly a top White House advisor, recommended it in an op-ed; Brad Burnham, a venture capitalist who was an early investor in Twitter and Flikr, praised it on his blog; and MIT engineering professor David Reed, and co-author of the original end-to-end arguments, endorses the book on its jacket.

So I wanted to flag this book even for those among you who tend not to read the latest book on Internet policy, but who would be interested more broadly in an important book on law, economics, architecture, and innovation.

I have already posted a longish review of the book for a general audience, on my (only sometimes-updated) personal blog. Mainly I explain why general readers should not be scared of an academic book–something about which I needn’t worry for law professors and law students.

The framework and arguments of the book have broader applicability to legal thinking, even beyond Internet issues.  

First, it’s the best example of a “law and architecture” book.  A few years ago, Larry Lessig published a paper called “The New Chicago School.” The paper (playfully) built on the “Chicago School,” a school of legal analysis grounded in economics. Lessig’s “new” school proposed four categories of constraints on human behavior–law, economics, norms, and architecture. He developed the importance of the last, architecture, in his seminal book about software and the Internet, called Code. By architectural constraints, Lessig meant “the world as I find it”: walls are a constraint on snooping, the weight of large objects is a constraint on stealing. (Of course, economics is also at play; if I had enough money, in theory, I could buy the wall and tear it down, or hire strong thieves. But for most of us, that’s not a realistic option.) He discussed how markets and law interact with, and shape, online architecture to yield particular constraints on individuals, or to enable particular liberties. For the Internet, architecture is even more malleable than in the real world; you can add or remove a “wall” to affect snooping with just a few key strokes. We can architect “cyberspace” (in the language of 1999) or the technologies of the Internet to promote certain social values, like free speech, innovation, or privacy. Or we can architect the technologies to undermine those values.

Barbara’s book is the best analysis built on an analysis of architecture, economics, and law. She analyzes how the original architecture of the Internet–built according to particular, open design principles–promotes one particular, important value, innovation.

Second, the book is interdisciplinary of necessity, incorporating deep insights from computer engineering (Barbara has a phd in computer science), law (she is a law professor at Stanford), management science, and economics.  Since she is expert in all these areas, she can see and make connections that other scholars, focused in one discipline, will overlook. And since she is writing for so many different audiences, her book is fascinatingly informative for all of us who wondered how the Internet actually works.

Finally, her economic analysis of innovation is among the most interesting law and economics analysis I’ve come across. It rests on the leading research in innovation economics and succeeds in disproving several economic arguments previously considered conventional wisdom to some economists, especially those discussing telecommunications. Her framework clarifies thinking on the one monopoly rent theory as well as assertions on where competition should and should not lead to optimal public interest outcomes–using the example of competition among cable and phone companies, which, she proves, should not ensure an open Internet, despite industry arguments to the contrary.

And the website for her book is here.

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