Legal scholar Lawrence Lessig gives lecture urging open access to scholarly works

Lawrence Lessig (pictured above), a law professor at Harvard, was the keynote speaker for Open Education Week 2019. Lessig was one of the founding members of Creative Commons and thus focused on copyright law and intellectual property (Courtesy of Joi ITO /CreativeCommons).

Harvard Law School’s Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership Lawrence Lessig presented the Open Education Week 2019 keynote address on Wednesday March 6 in Wadsworth Auditorium. Lessig’s talk, titled “On the Obligation of Scholars,” drew from his specialty in intellectual property law and experience as a founding board member of Creative Commons. 

Lessig began his speech with a series of interrelated stories that demonstrated the impact and implications of different copyright laws on society. Lessig included stories about the role of JStor, the digital library dedicated to academic journals, and activists’ fight to allow for scholarship that could be provided to people across the world, rather than those who could afford high-priced JStor subscriptions.  

Lessig argued that copyright and intellectual property law was not intended to ensure that scholars could erect paywalls around their work. 

“Scholars get a copyright, but it’s a copyright made for others. It’s made for others, but applied to [scholars],” Lessig said. “It’s a system of regulations intended for photographers and filmmakers and musicians and authors of books … The consequence of taking this device developed for them and applying it to us is very [detrimental].” 

Lessig additionally exhorted the audience to avoid the strictures of excessive commercialization of scholarship. 

“We can’t let their business model defeat our business model as creators,” Lessig said. “Because our business model is the model of enlightenment. Our business model is universal access to knowledge.” 

English and physics double major junior Claire Corbeaux felt that Lessig effectively communicated his information, despite its complicated nature. 

“I found it very interesting,” Corbeaux said. “I didn’t think it was going to be as riveting as it was, but since he told it as a story it made it much more engaging. I feel like I learned a lot.” 

Lessing co-founded Creative Commons in 2001 as a non-profit organization that provides copyright-licenses that are free. These copyright licenses allow individuals to indicate which rights over their creation—such as whether someone else can use the creation—they maintain and which they waive.

Director of Open Teaching and Learning Alexis Clifton emphasized Lessig’s role in allowing creators and scholars to dictate the terms of their creations as a key reason why the college invited him. 

“Without Lessig’s work with Creative Commons, there wouldn’t be an Open Education Week, or not a legal one anyway,” Clifton said. “Creative Commons built the foundation for doing the academic sharing that he’s advocating for. We’re very much trying to bring that to life at Geneseo and represent a national movement.” 

While Lessig’s talk focused on the role of scholars in distributing their own work, Digital Publishing Services Manager Allison Brown connected his arguments to the high prices students pay for textbooks and access codes. 

“We have information in textbooks that should be widely available but have astronomical costs. In the [SUNY Open Educational Resources office] we’re asking the same questions of the textbook market that [Lessig] is asking of scholarship,” Brown said. “Why are we paying a lot of money for information that should be, if not freely available, affordably available?”