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The Cultural Anarchist vs. the Hollywood Police State

A Stanford Professor Is One Supreme Court Decision Away From Ending Copyrights on Thousands of Movies, Books and Songs. If He Wins, the Entertainment Industry Will Have to Find Other Ways to Make Money.

September 22, 2002|David Streitfeld is a Times staff writer based in the Bay Area.

Larry Lessig is a 41-year-old Stanford University law professor who still looks like a graduate student, someone who has spent years in library stacks researching arcane subjects, miles from the real world. He's very pale and very quiet, as if he doesn't want to bother the fellow in the next cubicle. His hair sometimes sticks straight up, but he doesn't notice. Lessig has a student's idealism, too; he wants to change the way the world does business.

The entertainment industry, Lessig feels, is locking up old movies, books and songs that long ago should have transcended private ownership and become the property of the people, just as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the other framers of the Constitution intended. At stake, he says, is not only our common cultural heritage, but also the freedom that writers and musicians and filmmakers must have to interpret, reinterpret, adapt, borrow, sample, mock, imitate, parody, criticize--the very lifeblood of the creative process.

But Lessig doesn't merely want to free the past. He wants to free the future as well. That's something else that the entertainment companies want to lock up. The laws they are proposing and the technologies they are developing, he says, will make creativity on the Internet a wholly owned subsidiary of the Recording Industry Assn. of America and the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

His immediate target is a 1998 law that extended copyright protection an additional 20 years. It was a measure so obscure that the Senate passed it unanimously, with no debate and little public discussion. But it so outraged Lessig that he mounted what has become the first constitutional challenge of copyright limits to ever reach the Supreme Court. On Oct. 9, the former Supreme Court law clerk will try to persuade the justices to end private ownership of hundreds of thousands of artistic works, including some of America's most cherished. If he gets the court to agree, both the past and the future will change.

''The world won't end,'' he says. ''Hollywood will just have to find a different way to make money.''

During the past three years, as his copyright lawsuit has wended its way through the courts, Lessig has been talking it up in forums around the country and Europe. Walt Disney, he is always careful to say, is his hero.

Disney, one of the most popular artists of the 20th century, knew what a bountiful resource the past could be. He refashioned the Brothers Grimm's dark fairy tale "Snow White" into an upbeat charmer. He took Perrault's "Cinderella" and made it an enduring fable of pluckiness. "Alice in Wonderland," "The Jungle Book," "Pinocchio," "The Three Little Pigs," "Treasure Island" were all adapted from classics and became classics themselves.

What outrages Lessig is that Disney and other entertainment companies don't want this process repeated with their own works. They want very much to continue earning money by keeping their copyrights forever. Toward that end, Congress has extended copyright 11 times in the past 40 years, effectively locking away everything that Disney and every other entertainment company have ever produced.

If copyright laws lock up the past, they also are a very potent instrument for controlling the Internet. To a group of computer programmers in Monterey, Lessig recounts an anecdote about Sony's robot dog, Aibo. An Aibo fan wrote a software program to make the dog dance to jazz. When the fan posted the code on the Internet so that other Aibo enthusiasts could teach their own dogs to dance, Sony lawyers contacted him and told him he had violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Even though you've spent $1,500 for an Aibo, Sony still has control over how you play with it.

''Ours is less and less a free society,'' Lessig says. ''The law is trying to make creativity a regulated industry.''

Lessig was a professional singer as a child, which gives him a natural ease on stage. His audiences often applaud mightily. But no one writes to Congress protesting how copyright is being abused on the Net. No one holds demonstrations. ''We have this culture of passivity,'' he says. ''Most people like being spoon-fed culture. Look at the reaction to shutting Napster down. There was none. It's like we're the Soviet Union after communism. We've had 80 years of massive broadcast culture. It's the only way we know to experience the world.''

His lawsuit, officially titled Eldred v. Ashcroft, is a way of forcing the issue. It's a measure of the strength and importance of Lessig's case that he will be opposed in court by Theodore B. Olson, the U.S. Solicitor General himself, and not some government underling. Olson won all eight cases he argued before the Supreme Court last term.

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