Copyrights and Copylefts

To the ill-informed it might have looked like a scene from some long-lost sequel to Revenge of the Nerds. Two hundred or so computer-programming devotees, a.k.a. "hackers," were gathered in Technology Square, a tree-speckled concrete plaza in the high-tech post-industrial park adjoining the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

The purpose of the gathering was to march on the nearby headquarters of the computer software leviathan, Lotus Development Corporation. The march was to protest Lotus' rash of lawsuits aimed at extending copyright protection to something called "the look and feel" of its famous spreadsheet programs.

In popular mythology, hackers are presumed to lead nocturnal, mushroomlike existences in windowless cubicles littered with carryout pizza boxes and illuminated only by the ghastly green glow of the monitor screen. But this August midday was blindingly bright and hot (for New England).

The hackers braved the elements because they believe the Lotus lawsuits are emblematic of a whole series of legal and political battles in which the stakes include the definitions of free speech and democracy in the information age. The questions raised by the Lotus suits revolve around the distinctions between speech and property rights, distinctions which become blurred in the high-tech world, where ideas are both the medium and content of billion-dollar commerce.

The specifics of Lotus' beef have to do with the "user interface" of their 1-2-3 software. The user interface is the set of on-screen graphics, text, and command instructions that allow dummies like myself to make practical use of technologies we really don't understand. User interface includes things like which key you actually hit to save data or to move it from place to place within a document.

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