Friend and colleague Mark Lemley, out at Stanford Law School, has just published a really terrific paper (available here) on what “intellectual property” is, what it does, and why the Internet and related communications technologies have so radically changed the IP landscape (and will continue to do so).

A world without scarcity requires a major rethinking of economics, much as the decline of the agrarian economy did in the 19th century. How will our economy function in a world in which most of the things we produce are cheap or free? We have lived with scarcity for so long that it is hard even to begin to think about the transition to a post-scarcity economy. IP has allowed us to cling to scarcity as an organizing principle in a world that no longer demands it. But it will no more prevent the transition than agricultural price supports kept us all farmers. We need a post-scarcity economics, one that accepts rather than resists the new opportunities technology will offer us. Developing that economics is the great task of the 21st century.

If I were still teaching a class on IP law, or Law and the Internet, I think I’d start with Lemley’s paper, in its entirety.  Much — maybe even most or all – of what he talks about has been said before; but like all really effective summary pieces, it imposes order on some otherwise very chaotic disconnected threads, so that the Big Picture comes very, very clearly into focus.  Most highly recommended.