February 10, 2005  ·  Lessig

Lots of speculation and fantastic praise about the West Wing gig. It was a hoot to watch. But in two seconds (I’m late for a meeting) let me put this in perspective.

The story is based (loosely) upon a true story. I was involved in the drafting of one early version of the Georgian constitution. But the story ended up in the West Wing because I told the story to my students in Constitutional Law at Harvard, and a current writer for the West Wing was in that class.

And so is “fame” made: My story is on the West Wing because I was at Harvard — not because the brilliance of my intervention had been noted and reviewed, but because I was teaching talented kids who would prove to be important. Indeed, so has the most important of my “fame” been made: Did Justice Jackson pick me to be his special master because he had determined I was the perfect mix of Holmes and Ed Felten? No, I was picked because I was a Harvard Law Professor teaching the law of cyberspace. Remember: So is “fame” made.

Two things about the episode did, however, make me very happy. First, that it showed that at least some law students escape the trap that the top law schools have created — the path to a tedious and unrewarding practice that few seem capable of avoiding. And second, that it captured beautifully the single most important thing that I learned from my years working on “constitutionalism” in Eastern Europe: That 90% of the challenge is to build a culture that respects the rule of law, and that practices it. A document doesn’t build that culture. And no one has a formula — either for building it, or preserving it.

Certainly not a law professor.

  • http://work4bandwidth.blogspot.com mike w

    Build the culture and you build a good document out of it. And the people will adhere to it’s core values because it is already their core values. The American founding fathers, whose Eastern European 21st century rough equivalents were being portrayed on the West Wing, were a group of men who decided the other way around though, didn’t they? They wanted the document to guide them. And from it the culture would spring. That is contrary to current thought. And as Toby’s character mentioned, unique in it’s success.

  • http://www.freedom-to-tinker.com Ed Felten

    If
    Lessig = Holmes + Felten,
    it follows that
    Felten = Lessig – Holmes.
    Hmm. I guess the -Holmes part is right.

  • http://www.downes.ca Stephen Downes

    “Remember: So is “fame” made.”

    An observation well made, and well worth repeating.

  • http://www.elee.cc/content.php?page=blog.php elee

    drats, i missed it. was christopher lloyd playing a larry lessig way in the future? gosh, leonardo dicaprio (aka howard hughes) may be closer in age.

  • Dashiell

    Can you shed any light on this question: Why did they use your real name? I ask because, as far as I know, the West Wing has never portrayed a real person on the show, ever (with the exception of a few musicians, who performed as themselves, and weren’t at all part of the story.)

    No living politicians, world leaders, reporters, academics, or any other government type people, have ever been named in the script – let alone depicted on camera – despite numerous plots and episodes that have been based on actual people and events. And since the story wasn’t literally based in fact and they hired an actor anyway, why didn’t they just change the name? They’ve done that several times with other characters who were clearly based on real people. Those in the know could (possibly) have been made to recognize that it was based on you, and they would have avoided any pesky real world/tv world conundrums. This break in the “fourth wall” or whatever you want to call it, threw me out of the moment. Like hearing a 555 telephone number, I don’t like to be reminded that I’m watching a tv show.

    I’m not trying to begrudge you your moment (which obviously must be very flattering and exciting.) I’m just curious why they seemed to have broken what appeared to be a long-standing – and in my mind, sensible – practice. Thanks.

  • Jordan Graf

    >> Why did they use your real name?

    So they could sneak in a plug for “The Future of Ideas”

  • http://netdireito.blogspot.com Jos� Octavio

    “90% of the challenge is to build a culture that respects the rule of law, and that practices it. A document doesn’t build that culture.”

    That’s so true. In fact, I think should quote this next time I write an article (erm, or a post) on �constitucionalism� (well, that�s a word here). It�s amazing how its easily neglected how building a culture is so much harder than writing nice things on a piece of paper.

    Anyway, there’s a reason to watch West Wing again. That show used to be good… Or I used to buy the whole political thing… Not sure which.

  • Neil K

    You’ve been remixed!

  • jeff

    Why didn’t they have you play yourself?
    Lloyd played you as a cranky eccentric.
    Cranky, yes, but are you as eccentric as you were portrayed?
    I seriously doubt if I qualify for the “human” tag, but I typed it anyway

  • http://baylink.pitas.com Jay R. Ashworth

    A nice bit, I thought. I was especially pleased to hear that Bartlet liked The Future Of Ideas, too.

    I too was jarred a bit when your name was mentioned, but more in an “Oh, *cool*” sort of way. Kind of like calling 916-CALL-TURK and discovering that there’s a real person at the other end, for a Scrubs fan.

    Overall, though, my reaction is “it will be *really* interesting to see the week-by-week sales numbers on a) Future and b) the rest of your books, after the airing.

  • Rob

    I think it was neat that Prof. Lessig was even mentioned on a network television program, let alone featured as a guest character. Yes, Christopher Lloyd played him as a bit eccentric, but that’s what Christopher Lloyd does best and I don’t think it detracted from the message. For that matter, I don’t know Prof. Lessig personally so he may really be like that (though I doubt it; from reading his words I don’t get the impression of a tweedy academic).

    The other important thing that I think is being missed here: Prof. Lessig, who has been associated prominently with the fight to reduce the duration of copyright protection to a reasonable period, was prominently featured on a network television program. NBC shows itself as a very open-minded (or absent-minded!) corporate entity for allowing such a character to appear (and have his book plugged!). It would have been very much in, er, character for a content provision corporation like NBC to have killed the episode.

    Fame is indeed fleeting; but less so today. You can bet that Prof. Lessig’s “appearance” is now stored on many hard drives in various locations throughout the world, and eventually the episode will part of a seasonal DVD set. Those files will be around for a very long time. I am reminded of the episode of X-Files where a Native American elder spoke about his people’s belief that things exist for as long as people remember them. By that standard, Prof. Lessig has acheived a sort of immortality, at least in name, with this appearance. And I see that as a very hopeful event.

  • http://www.paultopia.org/blog Paul Gowder

    Wait a min… who was the writer? What year are they from? Anyone I know?!

  • http://dmusic.com Tom Barger

    A Professor’s Fame
    The New York Times
    February 11, 2005

    Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University professor who is a leading
    American intellectual property scholar known as “the Elvis of cyber
    law,” has now achieved a measure of fame among fans of “The West
    Wing.” In Wednesday night’s episode, “The Wake Up Call,” Christopher
    Lloyd (“Back to the Future”) made a guest appearance as Prof. Lawrence
    Lessig, a Harvard University legal expert enlisted to explain
    particulars of the Constitution to members of a delegation from
    Belarus as they write a new, democratic constitution. The character is
    based on the screenwriter Josh Singer’s real-life mentor, Professor
    Lessig, with whom he studied contract law at Harvard in 1997. “It was
    one of my first courses, and he was unbelievable,” Mr. Singer said.
    “He was a rock star.” In preparing for the episode, Mr. Singer also
    remembered that Professor Lessig had been asked, in his capacity as
    co-director of the Center for the Study of Constitutionalism in
    Eastern Europe, to help work on the Georgian constitution. “I called
    him up and asked him to tell me more about what had happened,” Mr.
    Singer said. “On the set, we replicated what they had done.” No word
    yet on the real-life professor’s feeling about the episode, though Mr.
    Singer said that after reading the script and giving formal approval,
    his mentor “seemed to be pretty thrilled.” CATHERINE BILLEY

  • http://www.studiodudes.net Barry M. Meyer

    I’m so glad to see everyone enjoying our fine programming. The West Wing has brought the best out in all of us. We here at Warner Bros. were about to pack it up and throw in the towel, but to see how one show could bring us all together brought tears to my (and the other executives) eyes. Thank you Lawrence Lessig for having such a “hoot” with our show.

  • http://www.geekblog.net Dwight

    I truly enjoyed the episode, and note that I had similar thoughts to the many commenters here. I found myself rewinding the intro of Lloyd’s Lessig a few times(not realizing he’d be named repeatedly throughout) just to see if I heard it right. I then paused it and hopped over here to see if it was referred to. I watched the whole show before reading the comments and while I agree it is very liberal of the network to allow it, I am reminded that in no way was the copyright issue mentioned. Therefore, it is possible that most people would not make the connection unless they actually go read Lawrence’s books or read his blog. Still, a momentous occasion, one few of us will ever be able to claim. Well done Professor.

  • Ted Goldstein

    The West Wing is one of the few popular arenas for progressive commentary. The introduction of Professor Lessig as a character on the show opens up the possibility for Creative Commons ideas to be brought to the public at large. It would be wonderful to see this happen. Popularization of new ideas often requires some vehicle to transport it. Lets hope we see Christopher Lloyd discussing Open Source and intellectual property with Martin Sheen.

  • Kevin Fisk

    I thought the episode was great … the choice of stars did confuse me. Professor Lessig has never struck me as old, OR eccentric. But, it was fun to see the professor on my favorite program.

    Kevin

  • james

    hey, no offense to the Professor, but I thought Christopher Lloyd was pretty charasmatic!

  • Snarky

    I’m pretty sure Lessid was selected as a special master by Judge Jackson, not Justice Jackson.

  • enoc

    “No living politicians, world leaders, reporters, academics, or any other government type people, have ever been named in the script – let alone depicted on camera . . .”

    Laurence Tribe was mentioned in one episode (2nd or 3rd season, I think).

  • Polybius

    No living politicians, world leaders, reporters, academics, or any other government type people, have ever been named in the script – let alone depicted on camera – despite numerous plots and episodes that have been based on actual people and events.
    Off the top of my head Jay Leno was on one episode playing himself and Justice Blackmun was mentioned. I’m sure there are others.

  • chris

    “Off the top of my head Jay Leno was on one episode playing himself and Justice Blackmun was mentioned. I’m sure there are others.”

    Justice Blackmun is not alive and Jay Leno is not a world leader, reporter, academic, or other government type person.

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  • http://www.15grant.com/mrsizer/blog/ mrsizer

    The West Wing is one of the few popular arenas for progressive commentary.

    Nice choice of words. “progressive” I’ll agree with. As a conservative who LOVES the show, “liberal” would have been the wrong choice of words.

    Congratulations, Professor. I had no idea the character was a real person.

    I loved the episode – particularly the bit when he asked “How many does it take?” It’s a good question. The Federalist Papers didn’t have that many authors…

    P.S. I think the comment spam-bot thing isn’t working: Jack seems to have slipped through.

  • PJ

    Regarding the subject of “real” people on the show. In the last episode of season 2, a guy played a real medical reporter. The one Bartlet is supposed to point to first.

  • http://neuro.me.uk/ neuro

    “Off the top of my head Jay Leno was on one episode playing himself and Justice Blackmun was mentioned. I’m sure there are others.”

    Queen Elizabeth II has been mentioned, as has Colonel Gadaffi – see http://westwing.bewarne.com/worldleaders.html for more.

  • Dashiell

    I stand corrected in that there are quite a few mentions of “real” people who I missed or forgot about. But my point still stands, because every time a real person has been mentioned either they never appeared on the show, or they appeared on the show as themselves, and of those who did, none played a significant role in the plot of the episode. (The only other (possible) instance that I could find of a real person being played by an actor is Lawrence Altman, who is a real medical reporter, but was only on screen for one shot and had no lines. And had I known of the real Dr. Altman at the time, I would have complained then too.)

    In addition, there have been several instances were a character was clearly modeled on a real person and played an big role in the episode, and in each case, the “person” was given a new name. (The Dr. Laura-like talk show host, the CEO of a software company who looked suspiciously like Bill Gates; there are many others and not all of them were unfavorable portraits.) I feel this is the correct approach, because too many complications arise when you have fictional characters interact with real people. (There are many reasons for this, which space and boredom don’t allow me to elaborate on, but if you want to know why you can email me.)

    I’ve since learned that the script was written by a former student of Dr. Lessig’s and that’s how he came to be in the show. I was just wondering why they didn’t change his name, as has been the practice in the past. Since the appearance of “Dr. Lessig” was pretty innocuous (and again, I have nothing against the real Dr. Lessig, and don’t mean to criticize him in any way) they probably figured it didn’t matter one way or the other. (Although if that’s the case, why go to the trouble to hire Christopher Lloyd?)

    Yes, it’s not that big a deal, but as a viewer I found it distracting, as I do any time a real person is mentioned on the show, even if they don’t appear. If you’re going to do it, there should be a good reason.

  • http://www.isipp.com Anne P. Mitchell

    Larry – you wrote: “First, that it showed that at least some law students escape the trap that the top law schools have created — the path to a tedious and unrewarding practice that few seem capable of avoiding.”

    You do what you have to do. And with apologies to Nike, just do it.

    Anne

  • Michelle Aden

    Anne – Larry’s inspiring a new generation: My 15 year-old son Christopher attended Larry’s presentation and book signing of “Free Culture”. After Larry’s usual excellent talk, he decided a career in Law and CS was for him. His signed book reads: ‘…hope to see you in my con law class”.
    Michelle

  • http://www.baseballer.net Zennie Abraham

    Hmm…
    I disagree that this is a case of your teaching talented people at Harvard. Such developments can occur in any fashion. For example, you could have been talking about the matter to someone continuously over lunch, and they tell someone else.

    But I think the overall point for everyone to remember is that anything you do or say is always grist for someone else’s mill.

    As an example, visit Sports Business Simulations

  • http://salman.azhar.co.uk azeem

    but lessig is young and pretty funky. and he was played as a pipe-smoking oxford don stuck in the 19th century. far cry from the 21st century real one

  • birtelcom

    Perhaps the most flattering aspect of the episode for Prof. Lessig is the character’s role not in the subplot regarding former Soviet Republic constitutionalism, but the character’s role in the main plot. The primary conflict of the episode revolves around issues of how to allocate President Bartlett’s limited work hours given his illness — a conflict set up by Bartlett’s inability to turn down the opportunity to stay up late into the night talking with “Professor Lessig” about the professor’s ideas. Although Bartlett’s staff and his wife clearly think the late night bull session with this law professor was an irresponsible use of Bartlett’s time and energy (as compared to, say, dealing with a major Persian Gulf crisis), many of us who follow this blog, and the real Prof. Lessig’s work, can understand President Bartlett’s priorites.

  • http://www.thebigmouth.blogspot.com a&w

    Let me assure you, Zennie, that Josh is plenty talented. A little cheesy perhaps, but with a redeeming ironic streak. See, e.g., the West Wing (portraying Lessig as a stuffed shirt).

  • Olov

    On the subject of real people on the show:

    How does CJ’s scene sitting on a bench with big bird fit in? that’s a cameo if ever I saw one, but big bird isn’t a real person. On the other hand she and the rest of the cast of sesame street are kind of visitors from the real world. I’m confused.

    Sorry for not discussing intellectual property rights etc, I gather that’s what you’re supposed to do here?