Developed by Brian Hanley, Master's of Engineering degree candidate at Lehigh University

Intellectual Property & Social Norms


In Intellectual Property Strategy, John Palfrey evaluates recent changes in social norms. Young people today relate to intellectual property in ways that earlier generations find incomprehensible. The youth’s disregard for copyrights, for instance, manifests itself daily as individuals share copyrighted music illegally. Palfrey argues that the youth’s lax attitude towards intellectual property is likely to dictate where the cultural and economic marketplace for intellectual property is heading (Palfrey 131). This blog aims to support Palfrey’s argument with insights, intuition, and evidence provided by Larry Lessig’s TED Talk, “Laws that Choke Creativity” (2007).


My generation inherited the internet-era. It found us, for better or for worse. Immersed in user-generated content since day one, it became my generation’s instinct to create, and more importantly, to share its creations digitally. Copyright laws, by nature, oppose our instinct to collaborate. They choke to death our creative spirit. They muffle to silence our vociferous cries. They challenge what and who we are.


Pulling incessantly in opposite directions, copyright laws and my generation have agreed to a stalemate. The law proscribes behavior that defines us. It prohibits precisely what it means to be young. Inevitably, we, increasingly ravenous for more movies and more mixtapes, abandon the law. We download copyrighted works, conscious of the illegality of our actions. We act solely on instinct and become criminals in the process.


In 2007, Larry Lessig, the Net’s most celebrated lawyer, offered different solutions to this cultural quagmire. First, Lessig suggested, everyone should recognize and embrace that there’s a new commerce arising, led by the young criminals themselves. Second, artists who currently protect their intellectual property should legalize what it means to be young again. They should recognize the economic potential of doing so, and should relish the fact that their work will be made increasingly available. Once artists and businesses embrace a balance between the youth’s dogged demands for open-source digital content and the law, an economy of creativity will flourish.


As Lessig explains, the youth cannot be pacified. Young people can only be made pirates. The Internet culture cannot be destroyed. It can only be pushed underground. Copyright laws can deter the Internet generation only if the generation accepts that fate. That being said, the law remains relatively omnipotent. It’s imperative; the youth must learn to make more balanced decisions or otherwise suffer adverse legal sanctions. Young people who regularly download free music should recognize not only the illegality of their actions, but also their direct impact on the music industry. Moreover, young people should support local musicians, DJs, and dancers—these creators deserve recognition for their handwork/artwork. Above all, young people should learn to respect one another’s intellectual property.


Palfrey is right to contend that changes in social norms are an important cultural trend. The shifting of such norms will likely guide where the marketplace for intellectual property is heading. Palfrey says it rather succinctly. “Over time, these same young people who today are sharing the copyrighted music of others illegally are becoming creators themselves” (Palfrey 131). Lessig’s evidence parallels that of Palfrey. “We are living in this eerie time, when ordinary people are living life against the law” (Lessig 2007). It’s no accident that Palfrey and Lessig’s research support a common claim. The youth today is inexorably unique. It democratizing the Internet and wittingly breaking laws in the process. The strange thing is, these same young criminals are likely to determine the future of intellectual property in this country.

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