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Conyers: Lessig's Corruption Charge "Crosses the Line"

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, March 6 2009

A few days back, Larry Lessig floated the idea that Congressman John Conyers's backing of a certain copyright bill could be explained away by campaign contributions the Michigan Democrat took in from publishers. Lessig tried to soften the charge with the caveat "no one can know what goes on the heart or mind of Congressman Conyers." Accusing someone of "shilling for Big Paper," though, tends to leave a certain taste in the mouth. Not surprisingly, Conyers is not at all pleased. The determinative connection that Lessig drew from MAPLight fundraising data and his legislative actions "crosses the line," he writes. I'll argue below that we're bearing witness here to a timely and important moment. But first, the wrath of Conyers:

Professor Lessig's recent comments on the the scientific publishing issue and my sponsorship of a bill on the subject simply cross the line. I would hope we could debate these matters, including both the substantive policy issue as well as the process/campaign donation subject, without tossing around unjustified allegations. Just as Congress needs some changing, perhaps our discourse does as well.


Apparently, on the basis of this one piece of legislation he dislikes, Professor Lessig is willing to wave away my forty years of fighting against special interests, including for example my authorship (along with then Senator Barack Obama) of an anti-lobbying law that established reform groups labeled a "landmark" law. I have supported public financing legislation favored by Professor Lessig since it was since it was first proposed.

In fact, I would have responded to Professor Lessig's charge that I am beholden to corporate interests earlier this week, but I was busy fighting the mortgage lending industry to get my bill to provide bankruptcy relief to homeowners through the House of Representatives this week (I was also focused on securing the testimony of Karl Rove and Harriet Miers).

Professor Lessig may or may not know that, last year, the publishing industry supported a version of the "Orphan Works" legislation passed by the Senate that dealt with the use of copyrighted materials whose authors are difficult to locate. This may well be the industry's highest legislative priority within my Committee's jurisdiction. I refused to consent to move that bill through the House, however, because I did not think there had been adequate opportunity for all views to be heard. Would a craven shill for "Big Paper" do such a thing?

As to the merits of the actual legislation, Conyers seems to argue that (1) the original open-access provision was the result "procedural gimmicks" and that such an important public policy principle should go through the full legislative process and (2) that the current open-science model we've got going is detrimental to private funding that pays for much scientific research.

But back to the clash of giants here. If I wasn't already late for a very important date, I'd go into this in more detail, but here's my quick take. There's a certain atomized approach to politics that we're hearing talked about more and more these days. In that approach, each bill stands alone. Each legislative action is an island. That's why we can use metrics like floor votes and campaign cash to tally who's doing what, when, why, and how. That's not, in my experience, at all like how the United States Congress functions. Washington, instead, is a swirling mass of people and personalities and motivations -- not baseball. And so you get the personification of one approach (Conyers) running smack into the personification of the other approach (Lessig). We're talking here about two people who, by rough sketches of their politics, are ostensibly very similar. It's a tension that is likely to produce more fireworks than just this show in the months and years ahead.