May 3, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

When I was in my teens my brother David and I ran what was then called a pirate bulletin board. We had at the time three computers, an Apple IIgs, a IBM 286, and a Mac we borrowed from school, and we had very different feelings about each.

David & I were loyal to the Apple II platform. That the IIgs was, and it pains me to say this, a flawed and doomed product, made us only more loyal. The IBM was a much better machine, yet cold and generic in a way that meant we never grew attached to it. So we let the IBM ran the BBS, and kept the Apples for ourselves. We named our BBS “Fifth Business,” after the novel, and David and I were the sysops.

Fifth Business was relatively successful. At its pinnacle, we had a fancy 2400 baud modem, about 35 calls a day, and about 40 megabytes of files and games available for our users. It was, in a sense, our dream, yet of course over time, we got bored of it. We barely played the games people uploaded — the only game we really liked was Ultima. It was actually more exciting to be a user, struggling to get ahead, than a sysop, with total power. And so one day, though I don’t quite remember when, we just turned it off, and that was the end of my career as a pirate.

David & I were lawbreakers, and part of this book is part of an effort to understand law-breaking and its effects on legal systems. (My brother, incidentally, is a programmer, and now makes his living creating the kind of software we used to make available for download for his firm, pseudo interactive, publishers of Full Auto. I should ask him how he feels about that.)

So of course the filesharing wars from the 2000s are the unavoidable focus of that discussion. What we describe in the book is what we call the “forest fire” model of legal change. That is the idea that mass waves of lawbreaking are sometimes how the law changes – in the sense that forest fires, while they look scary, can actually keep a forest healthy. Of course if the whole forest burns down that’s not quite so great, but refusing to accept what lawbreaking is saying can eventually lead to even worse results.

The forest fire is just an analogy and may not be such a good one. But it is certainly clear that Napster begat Kazaa, and that Kazaa in turn begat both iTunes and Skype, which have made enormous contributions. Not everyone likes iTunes or Skype for various reasons. But the ability to download songs for a dollar and make calls for nothing. must be counted for something.

None of this, I suggest, would have happened without the challenge to law that came from the Napster in his dormitory. And so what we need to have is a more nuanced idea of what lawbreaking is telling us, what messages its sending. That’s actually the topic for my next book, and I’ll leave it there.

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