Examining the Intersection of Law and IT

Northwestern MSIT course focuses on what legal issues IT professionals face and how their familiarity with IT law can be an asset to organizational strategy.

Peter DiCola is a Professor of Law and Searle Research Fellow at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. He relies on that personal knowledge and legal expertise to introduce students in Northwestern's Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) program to the world of law and IT.

Peter DiColaDiCola uses empirical methods and applied economic models to study intellectual property law, media regulation, and their intersection. His current work examines copyright law and its role in digital sampling and deregulation in the radio industry.

In his MSIT course, DiCola examines the regulation of network operators, legal issues IT professionals address within their companies, the role IT plays in traditional legal problems businesses face, and more. DiCola took time to talk about the course and what he hopes students learn along the way.

How do you describe the goal of your Law and IT course to someone with little background in law or information technology?

My goal in Law and Information Technology is to introduce the students to some of the areas of law that most profoundly affect tech companies or the IT divisions of other businesses. The point of learning a bit more about the law, for the MSIT students, is mostly for the sake of understanding the implications of the law for business strategy.

If there were three things that you hope students come away from your class having learned, what would those three things be?

I hope they learn the following in my course:

  1. Each area of law is developed, administered, and overseen by multiple institutions within the government, such as Congress, the courts, and federal agencies
  2. Law operates alongside markets, social norms, and technology in a complex and interrelated way to regulate people's and organizations' behavior
  3. Very seldom is there a right answer or uncontroversial solution to legal problems

The course description says you touch on the impact IT makes on some traditional legal problems companies face. What are some of those problems?

In the area of intellectual property law, for example, businesses face the problems of protecting their own intangible creations and avoiding infringement of others' intellectual property rights. In the area of privacy law, some businesses are earnestly trying to navigate the different state and federal agencies that have some say over privacy. Admittedly, other businesses seem to regard privacy law as more of a public relations problem than a legal problem, apologizing when they get caught violating the law.

What do you think it the biggest misconception is when it comes to law and IT?

My primary field of study has been copyright law, which is part of intellectual property law. I sometimes encounter people in the private sector who believe that strong intellectual property is clearly "good for business." But intellectual property law can cut both ways. If protection gets stronger, that might increase the value of your own portfolio of intangible assets. But it could also make you more susceptible to intellectual property lawsuits by others against you. Some businesses do benefit from stronger intellectual property laws, on net. But for most businesses, it's going to be better to have a properly calibrated regime.

What do you enjoy most about the class?

I enjoy the classroom discussion with the MSIT students. Law-school classes are all about back-and-forth exchanges between the teacher and the students, and among the students. I try to create the same dynamic in my MSIT class. I should also say that I really enjoyed the set of papers I just got from my students! They all did really well in addressing an IT policy problem and suggesting what institutions would ideally do to address that problem.