Saturday, February 23, 2008

Politics: Lawrence Lessig + Change Congress

Earlier this week, I was uplifted and excited to hear news that one of the men I most respect in the public sphere, Lawrence Lessig. Lessig is a Stanford Law Professor, and though fairly young has achieved a certain level of internet fame. He has published a few books, mostly around his idea of Free Culture.

As a Stanford Constitutional law professor, his main area of focus seemed to be how our law system is being transformed by the Internet--not surprising for a young law scholar, because that's the new frontier of our society. Once there, his attention was drawn to Intellectual Property law--which he believes is currently highly onerous, and I tend to agree in fairly strong terms. Finding inspiration in folks like Richard Stallman (who in 1983 started the GNU Project, which fostered Linux) who believed that intellectual property could survive without extreme protections (like the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, or the DMCA), Lessig began a series of lectures and books to examine the issues of free culture. This led him to co-found the Creative Commons, which offers an alternative to copyright.

People like Stallman and Lessig have at this point been tagged as the 'copyleft' movement, because of their progressive alternatives to copyright. As an artist, Lessig is more important to me than Stallman (The Creative Commons caters mostly to artists and academics; GNU Project is a programmer's venture). The show I am currently working on would be far more expensive if I had to pay each individual rights; I am not 'stealing' anyone's work, but I would still probably be charged thousands of dollars. The ability to share and create works based on old works is part of the lifeblood of me and artists like me; it is the corporate world which objects to this, for the most part.

But starting from the end of last year, Lessig made a shift that was surprising to people like me who aren't very close to him personally: he decided to leave the copyleft movement in favor of an anti-corruption movement which had not yet formed. He created an anti-corruption wiki (which was an engaging concept: politics by wiki), and started to stump for Barack Obama. Outside of the internet world, he's not a very widely known academic, so it didn't make that much of an impact.

This week, it looked like that was about to change. In Lessig's home district (CA 12), US Representative Tom Lantos died, and a special election was brewing. Lessig formed an exploratory committee to explore launching the Change Congress movement (the name of the anti-corruption movement now).

My reaction was, on the whole positive. I'm still highly positive for that idea, although I don't live in CA12. Why?
  • Lessig is a knowledgable Constitutional Law professor, who has argued cases before the Supreme Court.
  • Lessig was portrayed by Christopher Lloyd on the West Wing. (That's not a real reason, but it's cool).
  • Lessig is one of the few people who I know of in the political sphere who have ever even given thought to Intellectual Property. You don't hear anyone talking about it, you don't see it anywhere. There's a massive copyright lobby, but the copyleft lobby is still in its infancy; new organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are still in their infancy.
  • Lessig wants to create a progressivist movement, which I think this country badly needs; Barack Obama's current traction and the 'change' buzzword are indicators of this.
  • Lessig is one of the few 'change' people out there who has fully articulated that real 'change' transcends the individual issues; the ways in which issues are resolved have to be tackled.

This is why I would have loved to see a Lessig '08 and even though he wouldn't have represented me, I would have donated for him.

Unfortunately, a few days later, he was already posting that he was not going to run. His reasoning, although saddening, was sound: he wasn't going to win. The opponent in the Democratic primary, Jackie Speier (although I don't know her) is apparently a very popular, very well respected, very experienced Democrat. Although I also think Lessig would do a good job, there doesn't appear to be a chance that Lessig would unseat Speier, and he would wind up hurting Change Congress.

The important thing, however, is that the Change Congress movement is still out there. Nine months away from the election--Change Congress could have a baby by then. A baby of democracy, I suppose. This is the movement we need, a progressive answer to the Republican Revolution of 1996. But we need to know more; the website, currently, is just a mailing list signup. I want to know where Lessig is going with this movement. How do they want to change Congress? How are they going to tackle nonprocedural issues?

I'm dying to know. And I hope I'll soon find out.

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