Lessig, a copyfighter for Congress?

The brilliant copyright critic and Stanford law professor says he's considering running for Tom Lantos' seat.

Published February 20, 2008 7:34PM (EST)

Lawrence Lessig is a professor at Stanford Law School and the most inspiring, clever, and generally effective fighter of copyright abuse on the planet (well, maybe he's tied with Cory Doctorow). But is Lessig a politician? Can he get to Congress?

He's considering it. In the above video -- which he posted to Lessig '08, a potential campaign site -- Lessig says that he's been moved by thousands of Draft Lessig activists into exploring a run for the House seat left vacant by Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos' death.

Lessig, who supports Obama for president, says that if he runs, his chief goal would be to reduce the influence of corporate money in politics. To jump-start that movement, he has also launched an organization called Change Congress to support candidates who share that goal.

A bit about Lessig: The man virtually invented the idea of "free culture" -- over the past decade, he identified and proselytized the key dangers that widening copyright regimes posed to a digital society, and he got thinking people all over involved.

Lessig's thesis, in brief, is that the nation's founders decided (in the constitution!) that copyright should be granted only for "limited times"; they did this because they saw that creativity depends on artists borrowing from other artists (see Jonathan Lethem's marvelous description of that process).

But in the Internet age, Lessig explains, copyright is protected not just by law but by computer code, which keeps you from copying works even if you have the legal right to do so. This, Lessig says, is more troubling than you think -- these days regulating "copying" really regulates all culture, because to do anything with digital content is to copy it (in order to simply read this Web page, your computer had to make a copy of it).

So Lessig is not just a legal theorist and a professor, he is also an enormously successful activist. Copyfighting is now a movement; online culture is a playground of mash-up and allusion, of "user-creation" and sampling, and Lessig's arguments have been key in affording legal tolerance for that culture (though not nearly enough tolerance, as the J.K. Rowlings of the world still come down hard on their opponents).

Last year Lessig announced that he would transition away from fighting copyright abuse to something more fundamental, fighting corruption and the influence of money in Washington.

Going to Congress, he says in the video, will be in line with that fight. He pledges to refuse money from lobbyists and PACS, to vote to ban "earmarks," and to support public financing of campaigns.

Lessig says that he'll decide by March 1 whether or not to run. One indication that he's thinking seriously about it is that he takes a good, clean swipe at his likely opponent in the race, former state sen. Jackie Speier.

While she is a good person, he says, she's a "professional politician" guided by a bad "ethic." Speier, he says, "takes money from the interests she regulates." She received $250,000 from the insurance industry, even though she chaired California's Senate Insurance Committee. "It's exactly that kind of behavior that I think is wrong," Lessig says.

In addition to all of the above, Lessig is also a presentation-software maven. One wonders whether his stump speeches will involve a Macbook.

Here's another of his presentations, "20 minutes or so about why I am 4Barack."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

MORE FROM Farhad Manjoo

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