July 25, 2005 | By Fred von Lohmann

EFF15: My Conversion Moment

(As part of the EFF15 Blog-a-thon, some EFF staff and interns will be posting stories explaining their personal connection to online freedom. For more posts in this series, click here. )

It was February 1994, and I was reading what was then the ninth issue that WIRED magazine had ever published. Laurie Anderson was on the cover. John Perry Barlow's now-iconic article, "The Economy of Ideas," was inside. When I picked it up, I'd never heard of John Perry Barlow, and had no idea that an article by him would literally change my life.

I had taken a year off from Stanford Law School and was living in Washington DC, splitting my time between my two chief legal interests at the time -- tax policy and women's rights. I hadn't even considered "intellectual property," which seemed the province of patent lawyers far more techie than I.

I'd already been using email on-and-off since 1986 and had experimented with a few of the other "hot" applications&#8212ftp, gopher, newsgroups&#8212during my first year at Stanford Law School (back then, university campuses were the only inexpensive way to get "real" Internet access). But it was not until I read those early issues of WIRED that I realized that the Internet would become more than just a way for me to save postage by using email. WIRED introduced me to the world of cypherpunks liberating crypto, Scientologists attacking free speech, and prognosticators declaring that this new-fangled Internet thing would radically change the nature of all media.

(Read on after the jump.)

But reading "The Economy of Ideas" was my conversion moment.

Re-reading it today, more than ten years later, I'm still struck by its prescience:

That is, when the primary articles of commerce in a society look so much like speech as to be indistinguishable from it, and when the traditional methods of protecting their ownership have become ineffectual, attempting to fix the problem with broader and more vigorous enforcement will inevitably threaten freedom of speech. The greatest constraint on your future liberties may come not from government but from corporate legal departments laboring to protect by force what can no longer be protected by practical efficiency or general social consent.


Legal efforts to keep the old boat [of intellectual property] floating are taking three forms: a frenzy of deck chair rearrangement, stern warnings to the passengers that if she goes down, they will face harsh criminal penalties, and serene, glassy-eyed denial.

When I put the magazine down, I knew I wanted to be copyright lawyer. More precisely, a public interest copyright lawyer. I'd always been a fan&#8212primarily of music, but also TV, movies, books, magazines&#8212but I'd never connected that passion to my politics. I already had a sneaking suspicion that the Internet would usher in a golden age for fans, who would now be able to find each other and get that rare live bootleg recording or that never-aired episode of their favorite TV show. But it was Barlow who made me understand that the corporate media giants were not going to side with the fans in this post-scarcity future. And, that in the battle between them, privacy, free speech and civil liberties could end up as collateral damage.

The rest, as they say, is history. Thanks to John Perry Barlow, EFF, and its many supporters, for giving me the chance to join the fight on behalf of the fans.

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