In 1997, I entered my first year of law school at UC Berkeley. At the time, I had a pretty open mind as to what I wanted to do with my life as a lawyer. I had done some work on gender issues in the past and thought I might continue in that vein, working on social justice in the courtroom or policy arenas. But then I met Pam Samuelson.
Pam teaches at Berkeley, but I met her outside the classroom as part of the team organizing a conference on software licensing law. When I showed up to the meeting, I was skeptical that I would be interested; after all, who cares what the fine print says in those tedious multi-page "I agree" windows? To me, it was all just boring corporate contract law BS. Yet within an hour all of that changed.
Pam showed us that hidden beneath these banal, technical, obscure provisions was a raging battle over principles of fairness, free speech, consumer protection, and free culture in the information age.
She showed us that there were key public interest questions at stake: Could a company censor product reviews of its software? Could I be forced to consent to a search and seizure of my data files? Would a single company be able to lock out all competition in a market by undermining fair use and reverse engineering of its products? These were just a few of the policy questions at the heart of the symposium we were organizing. From there, I was hooked.
(Read more after the the jump.)
The following year, I met Larry Lessig. Larry was visiting Berkeley to attend another Pam-inspired conference, this time on the topic of the global implications of e-commerce. While he was there, he met with some of us who had expressed interest in his ideas and in efforts to pursue a public-interest agenda in the high tech policy realm. He told us he was working on a lawsuit called Eldred v. Reno, through which he hoped to challenge the constitutionality of a law extending copyright terms for works that should already be in the public domain. He talked with passion and conviction about the harms the law was causing, especially to small independent publishers who used the web and digital media to share knowledge and culture with the world.
In 2001, I was privileged to help Larry fight for these rights at the U.S. Supreme Court by filing a brief with the Samuelson Clinic on behalf of Brewster Kahle's Internet Archive. Larry had done all the work arguing the legal issues, so we went looking for facts that the Archive could use in support.
One of the Archive's goals was to provide universal online access to knowledge, especially knowledge that was unavailable in any other way. For copyrighted works, this meant the archive was primarily focused on out-of-print works -- works that you couldn't even buy from a publisher if you wanted. Initially, we thought the numbers would be substantial but not overwhelming -- after all, if there's a market for purchasing a book or a movie, surely the copyright owner would supply it.
What we discovered, however, was astonishing. Over 90% of the books and movies affected by the copyright term extension were out-of-print. That meant that no one -- not a single child, educator, or researcher -- could access new copies of these sources of knowledge, art, and culture even if they were willing to pay for them. It blew me away to think of all the potential that lay dormant in these treasures and even more to realize that only one thing stood in the way of the Archive bringing them to the world's population, free of charge: copyright law.
When the law is out of sync with the needs of society, the law must change. Soon afterwards, I joined EFF to continue to fight for such changes.