Statement of Purpose

On January 15, 2003, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in the Eldred v. Ashcroft case. In a 7-2 decision, the Court upheld the Constitutionality of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998. CTEA retroactively extended the duration of copyright from the life of the author plus fifty years, to the life of the author plus seventy years, thereby guaranteeing a handful of multinational corporations another 20 years of proprietary ownership of cultural icons such as Mickey Mouse and Robert Frost.

Three months earlier, on the eve of the oral arguments for the Eldred case, I was on coop in Washington, DC, attending an evening party for the plaintiffs. I sat across from Eldred himself at dinner. Counsel Larry Lessig even made a brief appearance. People had come from all over the world to celebrate the possibility of a renewed public domain. One group drove from California in a “bookmobile”, an old van with several laptops connected to the Internet through a satellite dish. The bookmobile stopped at public schools along the way, particularly in poorer urban areas, and students could request any book in the public domain that would then be beamed down, printed out, bound, and distributed for free. We were giddy; we were witnessing the birth of a movement.

The Court’s decision against Eldred did not shock anyone. The Act in question was passed in 1998 by unanimous consent in the Senate and a voice vote in the House, in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the Kosovo war. Few activists outside of certain narrow interest groups organized against the law, and those groups did a poor job of reaching out to the broader social justice movement that was taking root across the country and would burst into the national consciousness at the WTO meeting in Seattle a year later. Although the social discourse surrounding intellectual property has changed dramatically since the passage of the Sonny Bono Act, many people working in the labor, environmental, and anti-globalization movements have yet to see the profound connections between intellectual property law and the struggle for global justice.

My decision to come to law school arose out of an unexpected collision with intellectual property law while working in the labor movement. Part of my job, prior to law school, involved creating websites for a local union’s corporate campaigns. When an employer attempted to bust the union, we responded by targeting other stakeholders of the company in order to build leverage for the workers. In one campaign, we were organizing independent insurance agents suffering from rapidly escalating premiums imposed by a subsidiary of the parent company of a particularly anti-union employer.

About a week after the website went up, we received a cease and desist letter from the company’s lawyers, claiming trademark infringement. While the website provided only accurate information and explicitly disclaimed any connection with the company, the company’s trademarked initials appeared in our domain name. Fortunately, the union’s legal representation was familiar with these sorts of silencing tactics, and after a few letters back and forth, the company relented in their threats. Meanwhile, the pressure created by the website allowed us to make significant gains at the bargaining table, and ultimately the employer recognized the union.

Many others are not as fortunate. Various areas of intellectual property law, originally conceived to provide incentives for creativity, are increasingly used to silence criticism and destroy potential competition. Several other laws enacted in the past five years have given multinational conglomerates potent tools to restrict access to information and culture to the elite. The consequences of these laws go far beyond the chilling effect on speech: strong international patent protection denies essential medication to hundreds of millions of people around the world, particularly with respect to the AIDS pandemic; small filmmakers find themselves deprived of raw materials as exorbitant licensing fees are required for any copyrighted work that might even appear in the background of a scene; rap artists are hauled into court because the essence of their music, like all other music, is to draw from our popular culture and make new creations from it; finally, the software copyright system has created robber barons that make the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts look like small business owners.

Disruptive technologies have a tendency to threaten entrenched interests. The Internet is now a powerful communicative and organizing tool for movements ranging from the Zapatista revolution in Mexico to the anti-globalization protests in the United States. The enormous potential for the free flow of scientific, medical, and cultural information is under attack by those who profit from denying access. I will use my legal and technical skills to work for free speech, civil liberties, and equal access to these emerging technologies.

Leave a Reply

(Markdown Syntax Permitted)