April 14, 2009  ·  Lessig

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The amazing folks at the Center for Responsive Politicsopensecrets.org have released (under a Creative Commons license) 200 million records to help the world understand how influence in Washington works. This is enormously good news.

Even better is that today they were nominated for a Webby. Here’s where you can vote to thank them in the best possible way.

January 6, 2009  ·  Lessig

Now that she won’t be my Dean, I am free to say the following. And I am inspired to say the following by my sense that there’s a misperception among some about exactly why Elena Kagan’s appointment is so important.

Everyone knows the Solicitor General is the government’s path to the Supreme Court. But some write as if the job is about arguing in the Supreme Court. That’s a mistake. No doubt, that’s a part, though historically the SG has argued a small percentage of the cases (sometimes as low as 1 or 2 a term).

Much more important is the policymaking function of the office. The SG must decide on the strategy for interacting with the Supreme Court. He or she must decide which issues to push, which to hold back, how to frame the issues, and how best to maintain the (deserved) reputation of the office as a principled expositor of the (administration’s view of the) law.

Having known Elena since I began teaching (she and I started together at Chicago), I can say that I can’t imagine a better choice for this job. Granted, she is not an oral advocate — though again, that’s not the job, and having seen her teach (always at the very top at Harvard and Chicago), I have no doubt she’ll be superb as an oral advocate.

But she knows the administration cold (after years in the Clinton administration, and many more years studying and teaching administrative law), and, more importantly (and extremely rare for an academic), she has an extraordinary ability to productively engage disagreement. That’s the real success from her time at Harvard (I used to think it was impossible to be loved as Dean of Harvard; Elena is loved by everyone). She is a straight talking, brilliant strategist and strong negotiator, who holds herself to insanely high standards. People see that and respect that — one bit to the key of her success.

As one reflects upon the fact that the most entrenched disagreements the Obama administration will face over the next 8 years will be with a conservative Court that doesn’t need to be reelected, it is quickly apparent that the role of the SG is going to be critical. On a list of many (if not all) fantastic appointments by Obama, this one is brilliant. Everyone is saying as much, but few, I think, recognize just how brilliant this is.

June 25, 2008  ·  Lessig

So it has been a fantastic week watching my new member of Congress, Jackie Speier, do her work. The first was her strong opposition to local moth spraying. “[T]he USDA has the wrong approach,” said Speier. “It’s spray and ask questions later, and we can’t allow them to do that.” Exactly right.

Then she voted against the FISA compromise. (You know my view about that.)

And now she’s joined with a GOP-hero of mine, Jeff Flake (R-AZ), to fight earmarks. Speier: “The biggest surprise since I’ve been here have been earmarks,” Speier said. “I didn’t realize how insidious it was and how deep it ran and how accepting so many people are of it.”

Bravo, Congresswoman.

November 14, 2007  ·  Lessig

Free resources hero Carl Malamud is responsible for another coup: As announced on the public.resource.org site, he has negotiated a deal to buy a chunk of federal case reports and make them available totally freely — expressly public domain (using a new CC tool we’re releasing in December that makes it clear that there are no rights — copyright, moral, publicity, etc. — attached to content). This is a brilliant step to a properly accessible public domain. Bravo to Carl!

November 14, 2007  ·  Lessig

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An important advance in the life of the network happened today. Miro 1.0 was released. Think about the history of computing technology — from the bottom of the stack up, the movement has been from proprietary to free. The hardware became a commodity, then the OS, then many apps. Miro represents the commodifying the content protocol layer. “It’s a platform that benefits everyone by keeping online video open,” the website promises. Here’s my promise: it signals the movement of those seeking proprietary profits further up the stack. That’s always a thing for innovation and growth.

November 12, 2007  ·  Lessig

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Jack Goldsmith is a friend from law school. We clerked together at the Supreme Court. We have remained friends since. When he went to the Justice Department to head the Office of Legal Counsel (read: the coolest possible job in the world of public lawyers), many of us were anxious. The kind of legal storm that was/is the Bush Administration is not a place one wishes on friends.

The Terror Presidency is the story of Jack’s time at OLC. It is a book that makes me very proud — of the ideals of my profession, and of my friend. You’ve no doubt heard the sexy bits — orchestrating the reversal of OLC on the torture memos, the scene at the hospital with Ashcroft, etc. Those alone make the book worth the read. Indeed, the new attorney general said he “couldn’t put it down.”

But the two parts that grabbed me were these:

(1) The hardest part of this story for those of us who believe in executive oversight (and believe that the Constitution means what it says in Article I, Section 8, Clause 18) is the extraordinary account of the costs of legalizing (as in subjecting to law) much of the work of the CIA and Defense Department. Long after this administration is gone, careful souls will need to understand how to overcome the debilitating costs of this sort of legal uncertainty. The simple answers (repeal the law; expand the regulation) are too simple. But Jack’s account interestingly flipped my understanding of the struggle inside the administration. It is hard not to see that the problem was often not a lack of law, or respect for the law, but an over-abundance of law. (We) Liberals, happy to have clear and plain speaking from an inside-conservative, should not be so quick to overlook this critical point of the book.

(2) There is something unavoidably fantastic about watching up close law have its independent effect. Most go into this profession believing in its integrity. Many find it too hard too often to see or feel that integrity. This is a book about that integrity. As anyone close to this subject knows, it is always possible to bend the law to some political end. It takes a kind of courage, or at least, self-respect, to resist that bending. Jack’s story here is compelling, not only because he doesn’t attribute the bending to illicit motives, but also because it makes clear just how hard it is to feel the ground on which one needs, always, to stand. If our students understood only a fraction of this, it would make enormous difference.

I am proud of this friend.

September 21, 2007  ·  Lessig

The single most important lesson I learned when studying the pathologies of communist nations (my life, 1980-1994) was just how critical NGOs (non-governmental organizations) were: Strong, independent sources of moral authority that could check and criticize powerful governments. I know few see lawyers in that role anymore. I’m not one of that few. In my view, lawyers have a critical role in protecting the rule of law — not just technically, but ethically, and culturally. It is our job to remind a nation of the ideals that underly a rule of law state.

It was with great pride then that I watched this fantastic talk by the new ABA President, William Neukom. I’ve had my disagreements with Mr. Neukom in the past. But there’s nothing in this talk that I disagree with, and there’s everything to praise. Watch especially the Q&A. And especially especially the answer about access to the legal system by the poor.

September 5, 2007  ·  Lessig

The 10th Circuit decided our appeal in Golan v. Gonzales today. In a unanimous vote, the Court held that the “traditional contours of copyright protection” described in Eldred as the trigger for First Amendment review extend beyond the two “traditional First Amendment safeguards” mentioned by the Court in that case. It thus remanded the case to the District Court to evaluate section 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (“URAA”) under the First Amendment, which removed material from the public domain.

This is a very big victory. The government had argued in this case, and in related cases, that the only First Amendment review of a copyright act possible was if Congress changed either fair use or erased the idea/expression dichotomy. We, by contrast, have argued consistently that in addition to those two, Eldred requires First Amendment review when Congress changes the “traditional contours of copyright protection.” In Golan, the issue is a statute that removes work from the public domain. In a related case now on cert to the Supreme Court, Kahle v. Gonzales, the issue is Congress’s change from an opt-in system of copyright to an opt-out system of copyright. That too, we have argued, is a change in a “traditional contour of copyright protection.” Under the 10th Circuit’s rule, it should merit 1st Amendment review as well.

I suspect this decision will weigh heavily in the Supreme Court’s determination whether to grant review in the Kahle case. It also nicely demonstrates the wisdom in this part of the Eldred decision (don’t get me started on the Progress Clause part of the decision…) The rule of Eldred, as interpreted by the 10th Circuit (and by us) is that Congress gets a presumption of First Amendment constitutionality when it legislates consistent with its tradition. But when it changes that tradition, its changes must be scrutinized under the First Amendment. This is an interesting constitutional argument — echoing some of Justice Scalia’s jurisprudence, as we argue in the cert petition. And it also makes a great deal of sense: practices unchanged for 200 years are less likely to raise First Amendment problems (but see …); but whether or not immunity is justified for them, it is certainly not justified for practices that deviate from Congress’ tradition.

The opinion by Judge Henry is well worth the read. The argument was one the best I have seen. All three judges knew the case cold. It is a measure of how good courts can be that they took such care to review this case.

Thanks to everyone on our team that made this possible. First the clients — Lawrence Golan, the Richard Kapp Estate, S.A. Publishing, Symphony of the Canyons, Ron Hall and John McDonough (all of whom use and build upon material in the public domain; all of whom were negatively affected by Congress’s removal of material from the public domain). But also and especially to the gaggle of fantastic lawyers who supported us in the case — the Denver firm of Wheeler, Trigg, Kennedy, and Stanford CIS lawyers Chris Sprigman, Ed Lee, Jennifer Granick, David Olson, David Levine, Colette Vogel, Elizabeth Rader and Lauren Gelman (Tony Falzone came on afterwards).