Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Can Change Congress Change Congress?

From The Nation: Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons, has moved to Washington to found what the nation identifies as a 'procedural reform' organization, Change Congress. The Nation doesn't seem to have decided whether Lessig is Quijote or Mr. Smith (despite the title they use). He'll get something done, one way or another, but it's hard to guess, now, what that might be.

What gives Lessig a unique credibility as he embarks on his new career as process reformer is his former life pursuing substantive reform. Before there was Lawrence Lessig, corruption crusader, there was Lawrence Lessig, copyright crusader. In the 1990s, when he started writing about the dangers of a sclerotic, overly restrictive intellectual property regime, few besides industry groups like the RIAA and MPAA and a tiny circle of academics paid much attention. So it was easy, in 1998, for Congress to pass overwhelmingly the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which President Clinton signed into law, extending copyright protections for twenty additional years, bringing the total guaranteed copyright term to seventy years after a creator's death (Since Disney had lobbied strongly for the bill, critics dubbed it the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.)

In the absence of high-profile voices countering the industry groups that dominated the issue, Lessig became an evangelist for the cause of what he calls "free culture." He and his allies argue that cultural vibrance, scientific progress and business innovation all rely on the diffusion of knowledge, a diffusion threatened by an intellectual property regime that attempts to keep that knowledge trapped in a proprietary vault. What they see happening is a modern-day rerun of the eighteenth-century enclosure movement, in which the British commons were brought under private control. But here, instead of using fences to capture land, the private interests are manipulating the law to keep cultural production and the knowledge needed for technological innovation out of the public domain.

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Lessig's years rolling the copyright boulder up the hill served as the narrative inspiration for his talk at the Press Club. For Lessig, copyright is just one example of the ways money corrupts the Congressional process by preventing Congress from getting what he calls the "easy cases" right. Nearly every expert who's studied copyright term has concluded that it shouldn't be extended retroactively: Milton Friedman once referred to this position as a "no-brainer." But that hasn't stopped big corporations like Disney, which stands to lose a considerable amount of money when Mickey Mouse becomes public property, from pushing through legislation that extends copyright protections for old works.

It's the same dynamic with a host of issues, from the farm bill to the role of contractors in Iraq to an issue Lessig calls "the most profound" we face: global warming. There, the scientific consensus is absolute, the stakes dire and yet action has been routinely thwarted by a coterie of corporations that have a monumental monetary interest in the status quo. "Really, who cares about Mickey Mouse," Lessig told me over dinner the night before his talk. "But if we can't get global warming right? An easy question as fundamental as global warming? Then we're really fucked."

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