In what might be the first major newspaper editorial ever written in praise of a lawyer, The UK Guardian joined a chorus of voices calling for Stanford law Professor Larry Lessig to play a role in the next U.S. administration.

Superlawyer (geek-tastic photo by ekai, cc-by-nc-sa

Larry Lessig: Superlawyer (geek-tastic photo by ekai, cc-by-nc-sa

Consider the Guardian piece together with Lessig’s own timely op-ed in today’s NYT (following a similar piece in the WSJ two weeks ago) and it’s hard not to wonder if the politicized professor isn’t pursuing a careful game plan.

In both of his articles, Lessig urges bi-partisan action towards reforming the over-reaching intellectual property regulations of the United States. By publishing them now, he also positions himself as an ideal candidate to enact such views when a new President takes office in 2009.

If I’m right, then these high-profile op-eds will be seen as crucial tactical moves in a Lessig bid to become the country’s first cabinet-level “IP Czar.” The position will be mandatory for the next administration as a result of the so-called PRO-IP Act that was signed last week. The act was passed (against President Bush’s wishes) as a result of heavy lobbying on the part of the notorious film and recording industry groups, the MPAA and RIAA.

Even though the two industry groups had their usual agenda of strict rights and tough enforcement in mind when they spurred lawmakers to create the post, no justice could be more poetic than to have the job go to Lessig, a long time critic of the lobby groups’ unbalanced and draconian approach.

I may be exaggerating when I call this a campaign on Lessig’s part as he is already a very well-connected advisor to Barack Obama on IP and technology policy issues and has also been mentioned as a potential CTO in a hypothetical Obama administration. Nevertheless, the articles confirm that if Obama winds up in the White House, I would not be surprised to see Lessig join him.

Of Lessig and Muxtape

October 14, 2008

Larry Lessig’s WSJ Op-ed “In Defense of Piracy” is quickly making the rounds of inboxes via a few email lists I’m on, suggesting that re-posting it here will not be news to anybody.

What I thought I’d mention in conjunction with Lessig’s piece however, is a link and some thoughts on yet another sad chapter in the entertainment industry’s long brutal fight against creativity and non-traditional business models online.

Former Berkman Intern Zach McCune first brought Muxtape – a site dedicated to facilitate music playlist sharing – to my attention sometime during the summer.

An undergraduate and the victim of an RIAA file-sharing lawsuit, Zach is a grizzled veteran of the copyright wars. He and I agreed that while Muxtape was a beautiful idea, it was only a matter of time before it got mangled by the legal machinery of the music industry.

The truth has turned out to be somehow more complex and twisted than we had ever imagined.

Muxtape (c) 2008, Muxtape LLC

Muxtape (c) 2008, Muxtape LLC

Muxtape founder Justin Ouellette’s September 25 post to the site breaks down the last few months in some detail. Here are the highlights:

  • “In the end, Muxtape’s legality was moot.”
  • “In May I had my first meeting with a major label, Universal Music Group.”
  • “The gentlemen I met at Universal were incredibly receptive and tactful; I didn’t have to sell them on why Muxtape was good for them, they knew it was cool and just wanted to get paid.”
  • “Things were going well. I spent the next two months talking with investors, designing the next phases of the site itself, and supervising the negotiations.”
  • “The first red flag came in August…the talk shifted to things like guaranteed placement and “marketing opportunities.” I was denied the possibility of releasing a mobile version of Muxtape. My flexibility was being constricted.”
  • “…on August 15th, I received…a complaint from the RIAA.”
  • “…on Monday when I wasn’t able to produce the documentation Amazon wanted (or even get someone from the RIAA on the phone), the servers were shut down and I was locked out of the account.”
  • “…the RIAA moves quite autonomously from their label parents and that the understanding I had with them didn’t necessarily carry over.”
  • “And so I made one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever faced: I walked away from the licensing deals. They had become too complex for a site founded on simplicity, too restrictive and hostile to continue to innovate the way I wanted to.”
  • “Muxtape is relaunching as a service exclusively for bands…”
  • “The new Muxtape will allow bands to upload their own music and offer an embeddable player that works anywhere on the web, in addition to the original muxtape format.”

Ouellete’s experience with Muxtape demonstrates that the actions of the RIAA constitute an egregious, anti-competitive abuse of the American legal system. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the story is the fact that they effectively shut down Ouellete’s business while several of their constituents were in the process of negotiating with him (indeed, the takedown episode looks like a sorry excuse for a bargaining tactic).

When is congress going to stand up to these goons? At the moment, our elected representatives are too busy passing the PRO-IP act, yet another gift of federal enforcement resources to the content industry (against the wishes of the Department of Justice!) at the same time as the US economy struggles to avoid a free-fall.

A must-read for anyone that ever has to do a slide-show presentation.

Lessig’s blog has a sort of guest-post from a phycisist named Chris Tunnell. In the post, Tunnell breaks down the elements of a Larry Lessig-style slide presentation. I will be studying Lessig’s techniques (and Tunnell’s description of them) in preparation for a conference in a couple of weeks. If you want people to listen to you the next time you have to give a talk, you’ll do the same.

If you’ve never seen a Lessig slide-show, here’s one he did a while back on why Google books should be covered under a fair-use exception:

Aaron Swartz’s suicide over the weekend is a tragedy. His death has affected many people very deeply, including many of my friends who were very close with Aaron.

Personally, I did not know Aaron well, but I regard him as an inspiration – as much for his quiet thoughtfulness and kindness as for his amazing achievements, intellect, projects, and democratic (small “d”) ideals.

I don’t have much to add to some of the heartfelt responses many people (including Cory Doctorow, Larry Lessig, and Matt Stoller) have posted elsewhere; however, as I have thought and read about Aaron over the past couple of days, I have decided that I want to commemorate his life and work through some concrete actions. Specifically, I have made some vows to myself about how I want to live, work, and relate to people in the future. Most of these vows are fundamentally democratic in spirit, which was part of what I find so inspiring about so much Aaron’s work. Not all of my commitments are coherent enough or sensible enough to list here, but I will put one out there as a public tribute to Aaron:

I will promote access to knowledge by ensuring that as much of my work as possible is always available at no cost and under minimally restrictive licenses that ensure ongoing access for as many people in as many forms as possible. I will also work to convince my colleagues, students, publishers, and elected or appointed representatives that they should embrace and promote a similar position.

This is a very small and inadequate act given the circumstances.

WSJ + Net Neutrality = Mess

December 15, 2008

This just in, the Wall Street Journal’s story on Net Neutrality is a disaster. Google hates it, Lessig hates it, and it even appears to get a bunch of technical details wrong.

Steve Schultze (a colleague at the Berkman Center) has the details of the story on Managing Miracles (his blog) where he’ll be following it as it unfolds.

Annotated Links

December 15, 2008

Catching up on feeds…

Daniel Gross joins a bunch of Newsweek writers to provide a guided historical tour of the rise of state-subsidized auto manufacturing in the Southern U.S. In the process, they repeat all the usual flack about Detroit’s labor costs and inflexible production being the cause of their current woes.

Google is hedging its bets on Net Neutrality, report Vishesh Kumar and Christopher Rhoads in today’s WSJ. Intriguing to note that the story devotes a lot of space to the view that any prioritization of packets is anti-competitive and anti-thetical to the architecture of the Internet. That says a lot for the ability of the Net Neutrality advocates to get their views heard. Meanwhile, the story has apparently distorted Larry Lessig’s views, provoking him to the point of writing a long blog post in response. Word on the street is that it also misrepresents a number of key concepts surrounding network protocols and architecture. Good luck getting a quote from anybody next time, guys.

In last week’s IP Watch, Monika Ermert illustrated that a lot of people attending the IGF in Hyderabad don’t like ACTA. Too bad there is so little so many of them can do about it.

Also in IP Watch, Nick Wadhams reveals (surprise!) that the recent glut of Anti-counterfeiting laws and programs in African countries have been heavily sponsored/pushed/written by the IP extremists at Interpol and a German group called OASIS. In any event, the US Chamber of Commerce is happy.

At UN Dispatch, Peter Daou fleshes out a provocative comment he made at the Berkman Center’s Internet and Politics Conference (which was, coincidentally, one of the reasons I haven’t been posting for a couple of weeks). It’s impossible not to heed the urgency and passion behind Peter’s call to action. However, I have to wonder about the rhetorical purpose of Aisha’s story in this context: does networked activism have to take the form of privileged men and women in the Global North rallying around the image of a poor, exploited African woman?

Pew Research tells us how “experts” envision the future of the Internet.

Sarah Kerr reviews the English translation of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 in the NYRB. I started reading his novels and short stories sometime last winter and I can’t get enough. Put it on your christmas list.

Finally, I don’t care what you think, Canadian politics are fun!

Stuff White Pundits Like

October 26, 2008

Despite taking the UK Guardian to task for perpetuating some unsubstantiated rumors about the Brazilian economy, I am enjoying the series of encomia they’ve been running on their editorial page lately.

Here’s the first one I saw In Praise of Larry Lessig.

More recent contributions include pieces on The New York Review of Books, Hawaii, and Literary Bequests.

xx (illustration by christo.bakalov cc-by-nc-sa)

Happy Open Access Day

October 14, 2008

Open Access (OA) FAQ

“Why support OA?” Because there’s nothing exclusive about ideas – we can share them at no cost and still develop business models to make a living. A vibrant knowledge ecology will thrive if we learn not to treat intellectual property regulations like legal cudgels to beat others into submission.

“Why does OA matter?” Because Access to Knowledge – whether in the form of software, academic journal articles, patented medicines, technical designs, or cultural products – will facilitate education, economic development, and equitable wealth distribution throughout the world.

But this is just a blog, you’re not really doing anything about OA: Actually, I use my blog to promote and enact OA principles (for example, check out my creative commons attribution-share-alike license up in the top of the right-hand sidebar). Also, as a graduate student and a researcher, I try to publish in venues that support OA models of distribution and licensing.

Alright, fine. I’ll “get involved,” just spoon-feed me some more information, please! For details about the day go here and here. If you really want to drink from the firehose, I dare you to subscribe to Peter Suber’s blog. If you still want to learn more about the theories and ideas behind OA, read this article by UC Berkeley law professor Amy Kapczynski, Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks (don’t worry, it’s quick!), and Larry Lessig’s Free Culture.

Aaron, you rampaging nerd, I don’t read – just point me somewhere I can give money! Okay, fine. Support and get involved in the activities of the following organizations: Knowledge Ecology International, Public Knowledge, Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, Public Library of Science, and Essental Action (esp. their Access to Medicines project).

Anything else? Don’t forget to vote this November and please tip your waiter.

Following up on its more industry-centric work in the Wireless Innovation Alliance, Google is heading up an effort to solicit signatures via a new site called Free the Airwaves intended to generate public pressure on the FCC to open up more wireless spectrum.

If the US is ever going to escape the current failed market duopoly for network service provision and carriage, efforts like this need to succeed.

Who opposes opening spectrum to increase competition, innovation, and access? Incumbent telecommunications firms with dominant market shares and well-entrenched advantages over their competitors.

Here’s the National Association of Broadcasters’ (NAB) FUD-spewing website featuring “Wally the Unlicensed Wireless Device.”

Once you untangle the actual ideas from the pretty pictures and high-flown rhetoric, the NAB’s call to retain strict oligopolistic control over the airwaves is based on the underlying assumption that “networks need an owner” – some firm(s) to be accountable for its failure, maintenance, and improvement.

Problem is, the Internet as a whole has already de-bunked this half-baked argument. Well-designed and implemented protocols (or standards) can overcome the hypothetical tragedies of the networking commons. Governments and large private firms play a crucial role in preserving the Internet, but one of the reasons ithe Internet has spawned so much creativity, wealth, and participation is that the underlying protocols are basically device-agnostic (although U.S. ISP’s like Comcast are trying to undermine that too). The Internet does not care if you are using a desktop, laptop, PDA, etc or if you are sending an email, a chat message, voice data, pictures, music or movies.

Returning to the wireless spectrum case, though, it’s important to note that existing government concessions to large telecommunications firms in the U.S. have stifled broadband speeds and access as well as the growth of wireless communications as a whole.

This market needs more competition, not less. The sooner the FCC (and other firms in this market) can recognize that, the better.

Sign the petition or visit the site to take action.

(H/T JW, SS, and other Berkman Center Fellows)

Update: Check out Lessig’s video contribution to the Free the Airwaves campaign – he elaborates further on the idea that the history of innovation on the Internet provides a useful example for thinking about the future of spectrum.

On Thursday, Matt Stoller at Open Left posted a chart revealing that “every major Senate Democratic challenger”  supports the free and open net.

This bodes well for Internet freedoms in an election year when Democrats are positioned to strengthen their control of Congress and possibly win the White House.

Perhaps we can finally begin to look forward to some legislation that increases the standards of openness, privacy, digital freedom, and data neutrality as opposed to the half-baked alternatives being peddled (and silently implemented!) by the telco’s.

As the FISA debacle illustrates, none of this is a done deal even in the hands of a Democratic majority or a Democratic president.

(H/T Lessig).