Lawrence Lessig has nothing against Mickey Mouse. Really. In fact, he believes the loveable Disney icon should be much more ubiquitous than it already is.
That’s part of the reason why the 41-year-old Stanford Law professor found himself standing before the Supreme Court last October arguing what both staid legal observers and anarchist Net denizens agree is the most important issue facing the future of the Internet: copyright.
When Congress approved and President Bill Clinton signed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998, Disney’s classic cartoon Steamboat Willie, which introduced Mickey to the world, was about to become part of the public domain. The law extends all copyrights 20 years—from 75 to 95 years for works by corporations and from 50 to 70 years after the death of the author for works by individuals.
It was, Lessig tells Steven Levy in Wired (October 2002), a classic example of how mega-corporations are working to foil visions of the Net as the grand digital commons of shared information. Worse yet, the copyright extensions provided by the act, opponents argue, clearly violate the Constitution’s intentions of providing only “limited” copyright protection as a way of promoting “the progress of science and useful arts.” The founding fathers’ original wording struck a compromise between two competing ideals. It gave artists and inventors an incentive to create, but saw to it that their work would eventually return to the public domain and seed future creative efforts. In the view of Lessig and others, the Bono Act threatens to choke off the supply of shared culture that is crucial both to the Internet and to creative enterprise in general.
And while Disney and the Justice Department argue that Congress has every right to define what “limited” means, Lessig doesn’t buy it. “They‘re just plain wrong,” he says. “I believe that if they weren’t working for clients who had millions of dollars hanging on it, if we sat down in good faith and talked about it, they’d come around to seeing it my way.”
Lessig, whom Levy dubs the “Elvis of cyberlaw,” is no stranger to controversy in cyberspace. Called in by the federal judge hearing the landmark Microsoft anti-trust case to unravel its technical detail back in 1997, Lessig presented such a threat to the software giant that its lawyers pressured a Federal Appeals Court—successfully, it turned out—to have him removed from the case, claiming he had a bias against the company.
If Lessig does have a bias, it is against the gradual—and in some cases, precipitous (just ask Napster)—narrowing of the public domain on the Internet. And his advocacy extends far beyond the Supreme Court. He is the chair of Creative Commons (www.creativecommons.org), a project designed to build a giant collection of works from the public domain. He also formed the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University, a law clinic and think tank that studies—and often litigates—issues of civil rights and digital technology. His book The Future of Ideas (Random House, 2001) is considered by some to be the last word on intellectual property.
But for now, at least, Mickey occupies his thoughts. And though he is not optimistic about the Supreme Court siding with him and millions of Net-freedom fighters around the world (two lower courts have already ruled against him), Lessig remains convinced that the fight will go on—if for no other reason than the stakes are too high to give in.