This Man vs. Mickey Mouse

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
(, 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
(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.

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