Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence “Larry” Lessig (born June 3, 1961) is an American academic and political activist. He is a proponent of reduced legal restrictions on copyright, trademark, and radio frequency spectrum, particularly in technology applications, and he has called for state-based activism to promote substantive reform of government with a Second Constitutional Convention.[1] In May 2014, he launched a crowd-funded political action committee which he termed May Day PAC with the purpose of electing candidates to Congress who would pass campaign finance reform.[2]

Lessig is director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Previously, he was a professor of law at Stanford Law School and founder of the Center for Internet and Society. Lessig is a founding board member of Creative Commons and the founder of Rootstrikers, and is on the board of MapLight.[3] He is on the advisory boards of the Democracy Café,[4] Sunlight Foundation[5] and Americans Elect.[6] He is a former board member of the Free Software Foundation, Software Freedom Law Center and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.[7]

Born in Rapid City, South Dakota, Lessig grew up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and earned a B.A. in Economics and a B.S. in Management (Wharton School) from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Cambridge (Trinity) in England, and a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School in 1989. After graduating from law school, he clerked for a year for Judge Richard Posner, at the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, Illinois, and another year for Justice Antonin Scalia at the Supreme Court.[8]

Lessig started his academic career at the University of Chicago Law School, where he was Professor from 1991 to 1997. From 1997 to 2000, he was at Harvard Law School, holding for a year the chair of Berkman Professor of Law, affiliated with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.[8] He subsequently joined Stanford Law School, where he established the school’s Center for Internet and Society.[9]

Lessig returned to Harvard in December 2008 as Professor and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.[10] In 2013, Lessig was appointed as the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership; his chair lecture was titled “Aaron’s Laws: Law and Justice in a Digital Age.”[11][12] In 2013, Lessig was also awarded an honorary doctorate by the Faculty of Social Sciences at Lund University, Sweden.[13]

Lessig is currently considered politically liberal. As a law clerk, however, he worked for both Judge Richard Posner and Justice Antonin Scalia, two influential conservative judges.

Lessig has emphasized in interviews that his philosophy experience at Cambridge radically changed his values and career path. Previously, he had held strong conservative or libertarian political views, desired a career in business, was a highly active member of Teenage Republicans, served as the Youth Governor for Pennsylvania through the YMCA Youth and Government program[14] in 1978, and almost pursued a Republican political career.

What was intended to be a year abroad at Cambridge, convinced him instead to stay another two years to complete a graduate degree in philosophy and develop his changed political values. During this time, he also traveled in the Eastern Bloc, where he acquired a lifelong interest in Eastern European law and politics.

Lessig refuses to embrace conventional libertarianism. While he remains skeptical of government intervention, he favors regulation by calling himself “a constitutionalist.” In his blog, Lessig came out in favor of then Democratic primary candidate Barack Obama, citing the transformative nature of the Obama campaign as one of his chief reasons. On one occasion, Lessig also commended the John McCain campaign for discussing fair use rights in a letter to YouTube where it took issue with YouTube for indulging overreaching copyright claims leading to the removal of various campaign videos.[15]

In a speech in 2011, Lessig revealed that he was disappointed with Obama’s performance in office, criticizing it as a “betrayal”, and he criticized the president for using “the (Hillary) Clinton playbook”.[16] Lessig has called for state governments to call for a national constitutional convention,[17] and that the convention be populated by a “random proportional selection of citizens” which he suggested would work effectively. He said “politics is a rare sport where the amateur is better than the professional.”[17]

In 2013 he was an attendee of the 61th Conference of the Bilderberg Group, which took place in Watford, Hertfordshire, England, on 6-9 June.[18]

At the iCommons iSummit 07, Lessig announced that he will stop focusing his attention on copyright and related matters and will work on political corruption instead.[19] This new work may be partially facilitated through his wiki, Lessig Wiki, which he has encouraged the public to use to document cases of corruption.[20] Lessig criticized the revolving door phenomenon in which legislators and staffers leave office to become lobbyists and have become beholden to special interests.[21]

In February 2008, a Facebook group formed by law professor John Palfrey encouraged him to run for Congress from California’s 12th congressional district, the seat vacated by the death of U.S. Representative Tom Lantos.[22] Later that month, after forming an “exploratory project”, he decided not to run for the vacant seat.[23]

Despite having decided to forgo running for Congress himself, Lessig remained interested in attempting to change Congress to reduce corruption.[23] To this end, he worked with political consultant Joe Trippi to launch a web based project called “Change Congress”.[24] In a press conference on March 20, 2008, Lessig explained that he hoped the Change Congress website would help provide technological tools voters could use to hold their representatives accountable and reduce the influence of money on politics.[25] He is a board member of, a nonprofit research group illuminating the connection between money and politics.

Lessig has known president Barack Obama since their days of both teaching law at the University of Chicago, and had been mentioned as a candidate to head the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the telecommunications industry.[26]

At his talk at the 2009 Aspen Ideas Festival, Professor Lessig talked about Forbin Problems in a talk entitled Will Technology Change Our Lives?[27] and also about his idea that the American public has lost faith in the central institution of our democracy, Congress.[28]

In 2010, Lessig began to organize for a national constitutional convention.[29] He co-founded Fix Congress First! with Joe Trippi.[30] Lessig called for a convention to propose amendments to the United States Constitution[31] in a September 24–25, 2011, conference co-chaired by the Tea Party Patriots’ national coordinator,[32] in Lessig’s October 5, 2011, book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It,[33] and at the Occupy protest in Washington, DC.[34] Reporter Dan Froomkin said the book offers a manifesto for the Occupy Wall Street protestors, focusing on the core problem of corruption in both political parties and their elections.[35] Lessig’s initial constitutional amendment would allow legislatures to limit political contributions from non-citizens, including corporations, anonymous organizations, and foreign nationals, and he also supports public campaign financing and electoral college reform to establish the one person, one vote principle.[36]

Change Congress, founded by Lessig and Joe Trippi, the Fix Congress First project, and the Rootstrikers project were created to help volunteers to address the problem of money in politics.[37][38] In November 2011, Lessig announced all three projects would become part of the United Republic organization, along with Dylan Ratigan’s Get Money Out campaign.[39][40]

From January 11th until January 24th, 2014, Larry Lessig and many others, like New York activist Jeff Kurzon, marched from Dixville Notch, NH to Nashua NH (a 185 mile march) to promote the idea of tackling “The Systemic Corruption in Washington.” He chose this language over calling it “Campaign Finance Reform,” stating that “Saying we need campaign finance reform is like referring to an alcoholic as someone who has a liquid intake problem.” The walk was to continue the work of NH Native Doris “Granny D” Haddock. The NH Rebellion will march again on July 4th and 5th.

In computer science, “code” typically refers to the text of a computer program (the source code). In law, “code” can refer to the texts that constitute statutory law. In his 1999 book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lessig explores the ways in which code in both senses can be instruments for social control, leading to his dictum that “Code is law.” Lessig later updated his work in order to keep up with the prevailing views of the time and released the book as Code: Version 2.0 in December 2006.

Despite presenting an anti-regulatory standpoint in many fora, Lessig still sees the need for legislative enforcement of copyright. He has called for limiting copyright terms for creative professionals to five years, but believes that creative professionals’ work, many of them independent, would become more easily and quickly available if bureaucratic procedure were introduced to renew trademarks for up to 75 years after this five-year term. [41] Lessig has repeatedly taken a stance that privatization through legislation like that seen in the 1980s in the UK with British Telecommunications is not the best way to help the Internet grow. He said, “When government disappears, it’s not as if paradise will take its place. When governments are gone, other interests will take their place,” “My claim is that we should focus on the values of liberty. If there is not government to insist on those values, then who?” “The single unifying force should be that we govern ourselves.” [42]

In 2002, Lessig received the Award for the Advancement of Free Software from the Free Software Foundation (FSF), and on March 28, 2004 he was elected to the FSF’s Board of Directors.[43] In 2006, Lessig was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[44] Lessig is also a well-known critic of copyright term extensions.

He proposed the concept of “Free Culture”.[45] He also supports free software and open spectrum.[46] At his Free Culture keynote at the O’Reilly Open Source Convention 2002, a few minutes of his speech was about software patents,[47] which he views as a rising threat to both free/open source software and innovation.

In March 2006, Lessig joined the board of advisors of the Digital Universe project.[48] A few months later, Lessig gave a talk on the ethics of the Free Culture Movement at the 2006 Wikimania conference. In December 2006 his lecture On Free, and the Differences between Culture and Code was one of the highlights at 23C3 Who can you trust?.[49]

Lessig claimed in 2009 that, because 70% of young people obtain digital information from illegal sources, the law should be changed.[50]

In a foreword to the Freesouls book project, Lessig makes an argument in favor of amateur artists in the world of digital technologies: “there is a different class of amateur creators that digital technologies have… enabled, and a different kind of creativity has emerged as a consequence.”[51]

In 2014 Lessig received Lifetime Achievement at the 2014 Webby Awards as cofounder of Creative Commons.[52]

Lessig has long been known to be a supporter of Net Neutrality. In 2006, he testified before the US Senate that he believed Congress should ratify Michael Powell’s four Internet freedoms and add a restriction to access-tiering, i.e. he does not believe content providers should be charged different amounts. The reason is that the Internet, under the neutral end-to-end design is an invaluable platform for innovation, and the economic benefit of innovation would be threatened if large corporations could purchase faster service to the detriment of newer companies with less capital. However, Lessig has supported the idea of allowing ISPs to give consumers the option of different tiers of service at different prices. He was reported on CBC News as saying that he has always been in favour of allowing internet providers to charge differently for consumer access at different speeds. He said, “Now, no doubt, my position might be wrong. Some friends in the network neutrality movement as well as some scholars believe it is wrong—that it doesn’t go far enough. But the suggestion that the position is ‘recent’ is baseless. If I’m wrong, I’ve always been wrong.” [53]

In May 2005, it was revealed that Lessig had experienced sexual abuse by the director at the American Boychoir School which he had attended as an adolescent.[54] Lessig reached a settlement with the school in the past, under confidential terms. He revealed his experiences in the course of representing another student victim, John Hardwicke, in court.[55] In August 2006, he succeeded in persuading the New Jersey Supreme Court to restrict the scope of immunity radically, which had protected nonprofits that failed to prevent sexual abuse from legal liability.[56]

Lessig’s political opinions on copyright law have led to legal challenges where he has attempted to put them into action without legislative change. In March 2003, he acknowledged severe disappointment with his Supreme Court defeat in the Eldred copyright-extension case, where he unsuccessfully tried to convince Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who has sympathies for de-regulation, to back his “market-based” approach to intellectual property regulation.[60]

In August 2013, Lawrence Lessig brought suit against Liberation Music PTY Ltd., after Liberation issued a takedown notice of one of Lessig’s lectures on YouTube which had used the song “Lisztomania” by the band Phoenix, whom Liberation Music represents.[61][62] Lessig sought damages under section 512(f) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which holds parties liable for misrepresentations of infringement or removal of material.[63] Lessig was represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Jones Day.[64] In February 2014 the case ended with a settlement in which Liberation Music admitted wrongdoing in issuing the takedown notice, issued an apology, and paid a confidential sum in compensation.[65][66]

Lessig is married to Bettina Neuefeind, and is the father of three children (Willem, Teo, and Tess).[71]

Lessig was portrayed by Christopher Lloyd in “The Wake Up Call”, the February 9, 2005 episode of The West Wing.[72]

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