Bring Your Questions for Lawrence Lessig


Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig has spent much of his career focused on technology and the law, and how the two affect copyright. He represented internet publisher Eric Eldred in Eldred v. Ashcroft, wherein Eldred and others challenged the constitutionality of the Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended terms of copyright protection in the United States by 20 years. Eldred lost the case.

Over the last few years, Lessig has proposed several copyright reforms which he says were opposed by special interests in Congress. In 2002, he launched the non-profit organization Creative Commons, which lets people make their work freely — and legally — available for public consumption (allowing us, for instance, to use Flickr images on this blog).

But last April, Lessig switched his focus from copyright issues to another quagmire-y crusade: political corruption. He partnered with Joe Trippi to found Change Congress, which recently launched a political donor strike against congressional candidates who don’t support campaign finance reform.

Lessig is founder of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. Before joining the Stanford faculty, he was the Berkman Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and a Professor at the University of Chicago (where one of his colleagues was Barack Obama). He clerked for Judge Richard Posner on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court.

He is the author, most recently of Remix, and has been a columnist for Wired, Red Herring, and the Industry Standard.

Lessig has agreed to answer your questions, so ask away in the comments section below. As with past Q&A’s, we will post his answers here in a few days.

Addendum: Lessig answers your questions here.

Sam Carter

In Eldred v. Ashcroft, why didn't you argue the retroactive nature of the copyright extension was directly contrary to the constitutional requirement to "promote progress of science"?

Surely, when Disney created Mickey, he had no expectation that the future law would be changed to retroactively extend the existing 14 year copyright to a much longer time period. The retroactive nature of copyright extension has nothing to do with promoting progress (since it can't be relied upon), and everything to do with maintaining current monopolies.


Professor Lessig, I read "Free Culture" in a business law class at the suggestion of my professor and thoroughly enjoyed it. The book was an excellent read.

In the contents of the book you talk about the rise of P2P file sharing and its impact on the music industry. File sharing and music piracy has sparked some interesting debates in the last decade as "leaked" material is shared all over the web. What, if any, solution do you deem plausible for the current state of the music industry?

Bob Brown

What should the public school system do to help people learn how to tell right from wrong and then do the right thing?

Sam Carter

You've spent most of your life studying, researching, and teaching about "copyright in the digital age". "Political corruption" strikes me as a radically different field from that. What was your motivation for switching fields of study? Or are these areas more related than they appear on the surface?

Sam Carter

Political corruption seems to be something that's inherently difficult to solve with market-based solutions (which tend to be favored among the Freakonomics crowd). Are you aware of some good market-based proposals to address political corruption? What are the tradeoffs that they offer?

Ryan Moreno

Do you see Congress being able to pass any substantial legislation in the future without any kind of event or catalyst attracting the nation's attention beforehand (i.e. Enron and Sarbanes-Oxley)? It seems like most of the major legislation of the past decade or so has been hastily done in the face of visible public demand and without much thought beforehand.


The trend of ever-increasing copyright periods seems as if it will continue unabated until copyright protection has no end date.

What will happen if copyright continues to expand? How will fairuse be expanded to allow for the creative/scientific basis on which copyright law is built?

Also, there is the issue of technologies that alter films for specific content during a viewing (software and DVD players). Copyright owners protest this type of technology as an unlicensed copy/edit of their original work. Will this technology be subsumed under the Rewind/FasForward exception, or will new exceptions need to be developed.

I would argue where a technology makes something easier that would otherwise be legal - these functional equivalents should be allowed. I.e. Software that automatically skips graphic language, violence, and nudity is merely performing the functional equivalent of a very fast father with a remote control and should therefore be immune from copyright liability.



I recently passed the bar exam in Maryland and am very interested in copyright, trademark, and technology law.

Unfortunately, I have no real background in these areas. I have found it incredibly difficult to get my foot in the door.

What would you suggest as a possible way into this area of the law?


Hi Lawrence,

Thank you!

I have a question about government corruption. Specifically, people in government agencies who are receiving kickbacks from vendors in return for being awarded contracts. In fact, I am referring to an agency here in the SF Bay area.

Since these bribes are 'only' in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, I haven't had any luck in getting anyone to investigate. Also, since I work in this industry, my own livelihood will be threatened since I'll be labeled a 'troublemaker'.

Having said this, it is difficult for me to watch this happening, especially since my company was pushed out of a key account in violation of our contract and our software/IP taken by a competitor who was willing to 'play ball'.

Said competitor is now taking the credit for our work and trying to sell the software we developed. There is nothing I can do about it since I have been bankrupted by this.

Do you think the Obama administration might take a more active role in rooting out low level corruption, or is there simply so much of it that it will continue unabated?

Thank you once again.


Sam Carter

You've stated that in hindsight, your argument in Eldred v. Ashcroft was overly academic (see ), and perhaps your client would have been better served with co-counsel from Jones Day arguing the matter before the Court. The natural choice from an outsider's point-of-view would have been the former Solicitor General, Charles Fried.

Why did you decide to argue the case yourself, instead of letting Fried or another handle the oral arguments?

Andy O

Professor Lessig:

What are your thoughts on the First Sale Doctrine and the general idea of portability with regard to e-books and other digital media ?

I am looking forward to the day when my ownership rights are not artificially restricted by the technological limits of the device on which I choose to read/view/listen to them.

I also would love to be able to 'upgrade' my existing pre-electronic purchases to their electronic versions in a way that financially makes sense to me and the copyright owner.

Thanks in advance!


Apparently you have advocated a system whereby creators can obtain direct royalties based on usage statistics. Since I got this information from a secondary source – wikipedia – I don't know if you advocate such a licensing system for all 'creators.' What I am wondering is, since this concept ties creative recompense to 'the wisdom of crowds,' how might this affect, say, a publisher's willingness to take a risk on a new, perhaps difficult, writer? In that respect, is this any better than capitalism? Which leads to the larger question: how would such a licensing system avoid becoming part of the capitalist circuit, i.e. wouldn't it still be embedded in an economic system based on profit?

Don Matheson

Cleaning out the legislature for sale problem is a fabulous goal, but "donor strike against congressmen who won't support campaign finance reform"....? This seems so naive as to be silly. The money that runs things is not going to stop buying congressmen because the congressmen won't outlaw the buying of themselves. The more you get individuals to follow your lead, the easier it will be for the big buyers to make the deal at a lower rate, as the importance of their big donations grows as a percentage of the whole. I hope I am missing something here.
How about a strike against the buyers? Select the 100 most egregious influence buyers, put investigative journalists to work trying to learn what they are trying to influence, and lobby the public to lean on their reps against nefarious goals.
I wonder if it requires legislation, or if it could be done by administrative order to have IRS declare that trips paid by lobbyists are taxable to the congressman....maybe they are, but I doubt it, and I doubt much business gets done on those trips.


Joe Clark

It isn't true that “Eldred lost the case.” Lessig lost the case *for Eldred* – by his own admission, after lecturing Supreme Court justices like they were undergrads.

So here's my question: Aren't Lessig's thousands of adherents following the wrong Pied Piper? Shouldn't a man who lost a copyright case before the Supreme Court engender a bit more skepticism than Creative Commons promoters evince, which is, at present, zero?

Gabriel de Urioste


In "Remix", you propose that we create compulsory licensing regimes to facilitate the use of remixed commercial media and art for commercial purposes. As an artist, anybody could use my work through this regime. How can I stop poor use of my work? As in, if my work were used to promote racism, violence, or religious discrimination, where is my, as the original creator of the work's, veto power?

Roy Park

Professor Lessig

My understanding is that copyright law's intended purpose was to promote creativity and progress by ensuring that authors and artists have incentive to be creative. I can understand that record companies and studios were and are a necessary component to deliver the artists' content to the public. However, with modern recording becoming relatively cheaper and the internet as an avenue of distribution, do you think the tension that exists regarding piracy is genuinely a battle between protecting artists incentive to be creative and the public's right to consume? Or are we seeing an arcane industry refusing to adapt and cut fat?

Dr. Alfred Jones, Psycho.

Dear Bob;

Look in the mirror. No one has the right to play g-d except you of course- but then again - I guess you already know that.


@#3 Bob, Why should the duty to teach right from wrong fall on the public school system? I do not believe the public schools are capable of succedding at such a task, nor should they be held responsible for failing. Morality needs to be taught at home, before the children even arrive at school.

Sorry, that was not exactly a question for the professor, but I just couldn't let it go.

Ben Major

Obama flipped and reneged on his commitment to campaign finance reform. I am glad he won the election, but how troubled are you by his decision? Do you consider him corrupt?



I've followed your nuanced advocacy of network neutrality for some time - you have said (in testimony to the FCC panel in Palo Alto last summer) that net neutrality should not be interpreted to ban differentiated services within the networks of ISPs. Many other advocates of nett neutrality seem to rule this out. What are you advising the new administration with respect to this issue and what do you think they are likely to do?