Larry Lessig moves on to fight corruption

Yovko informed me that a good friend of mine, and of Bulgaria, has decided to move on and switch from fighting big copyright corporations to fighting corruption.

Prof. Lawrance (Larry) Lessig has announced this during the iCommons iSummit in Dubrovnik (where we’ve sent couple of people from the Bulgarian Creative Commons team).

Here’s what Larry had to say:

The bottom line: I have decided to shift my academic work, and soon, my activism, away from the issues that have consumed me for the last 10 years, towards a new set of issues. Why and what are explained in the extended entry below.

Three people I admire greatly are responsible for at least inspiring this decision.

The first is Obama. Six months ago, I was reading Obama’s (really excellent) latest book. In the beginning of the book, he describes his decision to run for the United States Senate. At that point, Obama had been in politics for about 10 years. Ten years, he reflected, was enough. It was either “up or out” for him. He gambled on the the “up.” We’ll see how far he gets.

But for me, Obama’s reflection triggered a different thought. It’s been a decade since I have become active in the issues I’m known for. Over this decade, I’ve learned a great deal. There has been important progress on the issues — not yet in Congress, but in the understanding of many about what’s at stake, and what’s important. Literally thousands have worked to change that understanding. When we began a decade ago, I would have said it was impossible to imagine the progress we’ve made. It is extraordinarily rewarding to recognize that my pessimism notwithstanding, we are going to prevail in these debates. Maybe not today, but soon.

That belief (some think, dream), then led me to wonder whether it wasn’t time to find a new set of problems: I had learned everything I was going to learn about the issues I’ve been working on; there are many who would push them as well, or better, than I; perhaps therefore it was time to begin again.

That thought triggered a second, this one tied to Gore.

In one of the handful of opportunities I had to watch Gore deliver his global warming Keynote, I recognized a link in the problem that he was describing and the work that I have been doing during this past decade. After talking about the basic inability of our political system to reckon the truth about global warming, Gore observed that this was really just part of a much bigger problem. That the real problem here was (what I will call a “corruption” of) the political process. That our government can’t understand basic facts when strong interests have an interest in its misunderstanding.

This is a thought I’ve often had in the debates I’ve been a part of, especially with respect to IP. Think, for example, about term extension. From a public policy perspective, the question of extending existing copyright terms is, as Milton Friedman put it, a “no brainer.” As the Gowers Commission concluded in Britain, a government should never extend an existing copyright term. No public regarding justification could justify the extraordinary deadweight loss that such extensions impose.

Yet governments continue to push ahead with this idiot idea — both Britain and Japan for example are considering extending existing terms. Why?

The answer is a kind of corruption of the political process. Or better, a “corruption” of the political process. I don’t mean corruption in the simple sense of bribery. I mean “corruption” in the sense that the system is so queered by the influence of money that it can’t even get an issue as simple and clear as term extension right. Politicians are starved for the resources concentrated interests can provide. In the US, listening to money is the only way to secure reelection. And so an economy of influence bends public policy away from sense, always to dollars.

The point of course is not new. Indeed, the fear of factions is as old as the Republic. There are thousands who are doing amazing work to make clear just how corrupt this system has become. There have been scores of solutions proposed. This is not a field lacking in good work, or in people who can do this work well.

But a third person — this time anonymous — made me realize that I wanted to be one of these many trying to find a solution to this “corruption.” This man, a Republican of prominence in Washington, wrote me a reply to an email I had written to him about net neutrality. As he wrote, “And don’t shill for the big guys protecting market share through neutrality REGULATION either.”


If you’ve been reading these pages recently, you’ll know my allergy to that word. But this friend’s use of the term not to condemn me, but rather as play, made me recognize just how general this corruption is. Of course he would expect I was in the pay of those whose interests I advanced. Why else would I advance them? Both he and I were in a business in which such shilling was the norm. It was totally reasonable to thus expect that money explained my desire to argue with him about public policy.

I don’t want to be a part of that business. And more importantly, I don’t want this kind of business to be a part of public policy making. We’ve all been whining about the “corruption” of government forever. We all should be whining about the corruption of professions too. But rather than whining, I want to work on this problem that I’ve come to believe is the most important problem in making government work.

And so as I said at the top (in my “bottom line”), I have decided to shift my academic work, and soon, my activism, away from the issues that have consumed me for the last 10 years, towards a new set of issues: Namely, these. “Corruption” as I’ve defined it elsewhere will be the focus of my work. For at least the next 10 years, it is the problem I will try to help solve.

I do this with no illusions. I am 99.9% confident that the problem I turn to will continue exist when this 10 year term is over. But the certainty of failure is sometimes a reason to try. That’s true in this case.

Nor do I believe I have any magic bullet. Indeed, I am beginner. A significant chunk of the next ten years will be spent reading and studying the work of others. My hope is to build upon their work; I don’t pretend to come with a revolution pre-baked.

Instead, what I come with is a desire to devote as much energy to these issues of “corruption” as I’ve devoted to the issues of network and IP sanity. This is a shift not to an easier project, but a different project. It is a decision to give up my work in a place some consider me an expert to begin work in a place where I am nothing more than a beginner.

So what precisely does this mean for the work I am doing now?

First, and most importantly, I am not leaving Creative Commons, or the iCommons Project. I will remain on both boards, and continue to serve as CEO of Creative Commons. I will speak and promote both organizations whenever ever I can — at least until the financial future of both organizations is secure. I will also continue to head the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.

But second, and over the next few months, I will remove myself from the other organizations on whose boards I now serve. Not immediately, but as I can, and as it makes sense.

Third, in general, I will no longer be lecturing about IP (whether as in TCP/IP or IPR) issues. No doubt there will be exceptions. In particular, I have a few (though because this decision has been in the works for months, very few) obligations through the balance of the year. There will be others in the future too. But in general, unless there are very strong reasons, I will not be accepting invitations to talk about the issues that have defined my work for the past decade.

Instead, as soon as I can locate some necessary technical help, I will be moving every presentation I have made (that I can) to a Mixter site (see, e.g., ccMixter) where others can freely download and remix what I’ve done, and use it however they like. I will continue to work to get all my books licensed freely. And I am currently finishing one last book about these issues that I hope will make at least some new contributions.

Fourth, these pages will change too. My focus here will shift. That will make some of you unhappy. I’m sorry for that. The blog is CC-BY licensed. You’re free to fork and continue the (almost) exclusively IP-related conversation. But I will continue that conversation only rarely. New issues will appear here instead.

Fifth, some will think this resolution sounds familiar. In the beginning of the Free Culture talk I gave at OSCON 5 years ago, I said that talk was going to be my last. In fact, what I intended at the time was the last before the argument in the Eldred case. In my nervousness, I didn’t make that intent clear then. The literally hundred of talks since (85 last year alone) should have made that obvious.

But again, this is not a resolution of silence. It is a decision to change channels. This new set of issues is, in my view, critically important. Indeed, I’m convinced we will not solve the IP related issues until these “corruption” related issues are resolved. So I hope at least some of you will follow to this new set of questions. For I expect this forum will be central to working out just what I believe, just as it has in the past.

Finally, I am not (as one friend wrote) “leaving the movement.” “The movement” has my loyalty as much today as ever. But I have come to believe that until a more fundamental problem is fixed, “the movement” can’t succeed either. Compare: Imagine someone devoted to free culture coming to believe that until free software supports free culture, free culture can’t succeed. So he devotes himself to building software. I am someone who believes that a free society — free of the “corruption” that defines our current society — is necessary for free culture, and much more. For that reason, I turn my energy elsewhere for now.

So thank you to everyone who has helped in this work. Thanks especially to everyone who will continue it. And thanks the most to those who will take positions of leadership in this movement, to help guide it to its success. Just one favor I ask in return: when you get to the promised land, remember to send a postcard.

I hope that another friend – Joi Ito – will be able to navigate the Creative Commons ship in these, as someone may think, troubled waters.
I believe that Larry did what he could for the benefit of the public, and he’s decided to have a different goal, a bigger one in fact. And as the old saying is, “A man is as big as his dreams”, I am sure that Larry will make a difference in his new role. And I will be always here to help him.

You can also see his last lecture – at the iCommons. It’s on YouTube. The statement above is in the last 5 – 6 minutes of the video, but it’s worth watching all of it. Enjoy. (thanks to Joi for the link)

Good luck, Larry!

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