In which I see the Bookmobile, go to the Superparty, wait in line until 2AM, almost miss getting to the court, attend the case, go to the luncheon afterwards, visit the Library of Congress, play Set and head back home.


“You want to make a book?” he asked. His head craned towards you, a curly mop of orange hair atop it and eyes with love and dedication burning like a fire behind them. He was scary and yet inviting at the same time. He was Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive, the man who masterminded the Internet Archive Bookmobile.

The bookmobile itself wasn’t too exciting: a Ford van, with lettering that announced “make your own book FREE!”. On top was a large satellite dish, inside were a high-speed color duplex printer and a bunch of laptops and on a table behind were an industrial-strength paper chopper and a low-key bookbinder.

It was clearly far more than the equipment that made Brewster gus wife Mary, his son Calson, friends Art Medlar and Michael Robbin, as well as writer Richard Koman travel across the country from San Francisco to here in D.C.—surving, according to Brewster, “hurricane-speed winds and a tornado” along the way.

Unlike most Bookmobiles (of which they saw many at a Bookmobile conference on their trip), this one didn’t contain any physical books. Instead, it connects to the Internet Archive’s servers in the Presidio to download them. Then the high-speed printer prints out the pages. The chopper cuts them in half so you can fold them together to make a normal-sized book, and the binding machine heats up the glue-smeared cover to hold it all together. The whole process takes about fifteen minutes for a book (but they run many books in parallel so they can go much faster), and for the materials cost of a dollar, you have your own book. Brewster, of course, will give it to you for free if you help make it.

It’s because of the public domain that they can do this. Brewster talks about how he sat down with book industry executives. He points out that they have thousands of out-of-print books, which they aren’t selling and are making no money off of. He pulls out his checkbook. “How much do I have to pay to be able to make these books and give them to children?” he asks. They refuse, they will not let him make their books for any price.

So instead, Brewster turned to the public domain. He used the hard work of Project Gutenberg, whose volunteers sit and type in the full contents of public domain books by hand. And his friend Raj Reddy has organized the Million Book Project, which sends books to India to be scanned in and then puts the full-color high-quality images on the Web. And Brewster himself bought a high-end color book scanner and spent hours in San Francisco turning pages to scan The Wizard of Oz. Now the bookmobile prints the pictures of the pages in full color, duplicating that one book many times over.

During its drive across the country, the Bookmobile stopped at poor inner-city schools that can’t afford a large library, or even a small one. He explains to the librarians how they can make their own bookmobile, and have a library of a million books—far more than they would ever normally be able to fit or afford.

Everywhere he went, he found the kids loved it. They would stay after making books, helping the other kids with getting the cover just right. “There’s just something about making your own book,” Brewster says. They would clutch and carefully protect them—these books that they had worked so hard to make. It changed the way they felt about books. “There were a couple of kids at every stop…I just don’t think their lives are going to be the same now.”

“People have a hard time understanding the public domain,” Brewster says. “It’s an abstract concept; it’s hard to grasp. The bookmobile changes that.” He picks up one of the books he’s made. “This is the public domain! The public domain means giving books to children. You want to extend copyright? You want to steal books from children? No one wants to steal books from children.”

One kid they met was a poet who wondered if he could use the Bookmobile to print his own books. “These kids have no distribution mechanism,” Brewster pointed out. “No one else is going to print their books.” Some Amish he met asked if he could print old important Amish texts. No publisher was willing to do the work to make the books for such a small community, but it was easy for the Bookmobile to.


Inside the party, I felt more out-of-place. There was no one I recognized and no nametags. Luckily for me, Seth Schoen and other EFFers showed up. Then some of my Creative Commons co-horts like Ben Adida (who is building our website) and Glenn Brown (who’s our executive director) stopped by. Ben and Glenn kept introducing me to people in ways that made my face blush in 20 different colors. Later, when people recognized me and introduced themselves, each time their comments got exaggerated. “Ah, I heard you’re working for the Creative Commons.” “Oh, I heard you help develop the Creative Commons website.” “You’re the guy that runs the super-coder Creative Commons website!” “Hey, it’s the kid that runs the Creative Commons.”

Seth Schoen looks like his pictures and speaks like he writes. He has perfect diction and sentence structure and speaks with a rigorous logical thought. He is very kind.

When I stepped back outside into the dark night to get some air, I began watching the rhythmic processes of the Bookmobile. Then I felt a hand pinch my shoulder. I jumped around, it was Larry. “How’s it going?” he asked nonchalantly as he made his way inside. Once inside, he gave a short speech.

I’ve received a lot of letters since I started this case. Everything from “Good luck! I hope you win.” to “We need some sort of victory. You better win this one, dammit.” Let’s not get our hopes up too high. This is a crazy case, we’ve got a slim chance of winning. I put everything I can into this case, I’ve tried my best, but we’ve got to understand that this movement we’ve created is far more important than what five smelly old guys in Washington think.

Four years ago, when we filed this case, people laughed us out of their office. “You want to take away people’s property?” they exclaimed. No one understood what the public domain was, the media thought we wanted to get rid of copyright. That’s not the case now. Every article understands the issues, people know what the public domain is. That’s an important victory.

Even more important is that we have a group like this. We’ve got a team of people here fighting for our freedom. Whatever happens tomorrow, whatever the court decides, let’s not lose this, let’s not stop the momentum. There are many battles to fight, and we need to keep going.

(Needless to say, Larry said it far more eloquently.)

After some applause, Larry was dragged off by the group, told to go get some sleep before his case tomorrow. As the night wore on, we popped champagne bottles for the new Duke University Center for the Study of the Public Domain and toasted EPIC, whose founders were hosting the party.

The Line

When it was getting late, Seth Schoen, Cindy Cohn, someone else whose name I can’t remember (sorry!) and I hopped into a cab. Seth, who hadn’t been to Washinton since he was 8, kept looking at all the famous landmarks and saying “Wow!”. When he passed SunTrust Bank, he broke into laughter. “SunTrust Bank!” he said. Everyone looked puzzled. “No, SunTrust Bank v. Houghton Mifflin co..” (The case over Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone.) The lawyers got it. “Seth, I think you’ve got law on the brain. You’re going to go crazy,” Cindy said.

They dropped us off in front of the Supreme Court, where Lisa Rein and others set up camp. “We’re an emerging society!” Lisa said, jumping up and down. Seth put down his bags and hung his suit on a tree. Lisa asked us all who we were and why we came and videotaped our answers. We talked, ate pizza (we asked them to deliver it to the Supreme Court (1 First Street), which they did) and played Set long into the night.

Eventually, around 2AM, I went back to the B&B I was staying at to get some sleep. I set the alarm clock for 6:30AM (“That should give me plenty of time,” I thought), plugged my laptop in, and went to sleep.

The Court

Ring ring. “Hello?” I answered sleepily. It was Brewster (he’s up early, I thought), he wanted to know how to get his ticket to the Supreme Court. I gave him the info I had. After I hung up, I looked at the clock on my phone. It was already 8AM. I realized that when I plugged in my laptop I’d unplugged the alarm clock. I hurried to change into my suit and go downstairs.

It was 8:30. I realized there was no way I was going to make it to the lawyer’s offices to pick up my ticket. I went straight to the courthouse. The camp that had been set up had disappeared, and now Lisa and the gang were at the front of a line that stretched down the many steps of the court, and all the way around the block. There was no way they’d all get in.

I remembered that my email said if I couldn’t make it to the office, I should go to the Marshal’s Office in the Supreme Court. Seth showed me how to get into the courthouse and I was informed by the guard that I should wait until 9AM. I milled around with a bunch of other lawyers. Brewster later appeared with a toasted buttered bagel in a bag and a bottle of water, which he offered to share.

As we waited together, I began to realize what an extraordinary person Brewster is. Despite his gruelling journey, he didn’t seem the least bit tired. He was always selfless, thinking of how to help others, not himself. He was patient when people would talk, and talk, and talk to him. He talked about how hateful the anti-Scientologists were. “Clearly those people were very hurt,” he noted. “I just don’t like being around people so filled with hatred, even if it’s for the ‘right’ side.” When someone mentioned an “enemy”, he said “It must be so hard to be her” sympathetically. And of course, he’s spent his life building the world’s biggest library and making it available to everyone.

We took the elevator up to the Marshall’s office, and put our stuff away in the quarter-operated lockers. We got in line. I realized I had no ID, and that the Supreme Court probably wouldn’t recognize me. But it turned out not to be a problem: when I got to the front of the line, they simply asked my name and crossed it off a list before seating me.

The Case

The courtroom itself was an impressive structure. Everything was very, very tall. We entered through tall gates into long rows of red-padded benches. I ended up sitting next to Jake Shapiro, formerly Assistant Director of the Berkman Center who has started his own project, the Radio Exchange. He was a quiet person and good at recognizing famous people. He would catch my attention, look in their direction and then whisper their name: “Ken Starr”.

Alan Greenspan sat several rows in front of us. Jack Valenti came in a little late and sat down in front of him. Apparently Steven Levy, Declan McCullaugh, Rep. Mary Bono (whose law we were trying to overturn) and Rep. Boucher (who’s almost certainly on our side) were also there. Everyone in our group got in. Jace was #1, Lisa #2, Seth #6. They estimate only 25-50 people out of the hundreds waiting got a seat.

There was a loud crack, which sounded sort of like some speaker blowing out. As if pulled by some invisible force, everyone’s legs immediate snapped straight and we all rised to stand as one. “The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting.” (I looked, the justices were still standing.) “God Save the United States and this Honorable Court!” The crack sounded again, and I realized it was a gavel. We all took our seats, not as simultaneously as we had stood up.

They called someone to the stand. “Muh, muh, muh, Mr. Chief Juh, Jih, Justice and mih, mih, may it please the court.” Oh no, I thought, Larry was really nervous. Luckily, it turned out not to be Larry. Instead, people were asking for other people to be sworn into the Supreme Court Bar. The Chief Justice granted their requests. It was all very formal, with the same dialog replayed each time. The new members were sworn in.

Larry came up to the stand. “Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the court, Plaintiffs…” Larry got a few minutes of speaking in before he was interrupted. One of the female justices interrupted and pressed him on the First Amendment issues. They went back and forth a few times with Larry doing a poor job of explaining. They gave up and moved on to what distinguished the ‘76 copyright extension from the ‘97 one. Larry stated that nothing did, his theory would have overturned both. “Perhaps we should find another theory then,” said one of the male justices. I kept waiting for Larry to explain that Congress could set the copyright to any reasonable limit, but then they had to stick to it, and not retroactively extend it when it expired. But he didn’t. Of course, as Brewster later noted, “it was a dance for which I don’t know the steps.”

I thought Larry had done an awful job until Solicitor General Olson (the man who argued for Bush in Bush v. Gore) came up. The Justices had a field day with him. Rehnquist got him to admit that a perpetual copyright would violate the Constitution. Kennedy got him to admit that a functionally perpetual (900 year) copyright would also be a violation. “Isn’t that what petitioners argue?” asked another Justice. “That if you keep extending the term of copyright it’s the functional equivalent?”

Justice Breyer seemed to have the economist’s spreadsheet going in his head. “Alright, so $2.4 billion dollars have gone to vested copyright holders. This bill will give them $6 billion more dollars. And the additional incentive that gives is zero—to three decimal places as the economists say. I consider that on the harm side. It will also introduce, let’s say $1 billion dollars in searching for copyright holders in this legal thicket—and for many you won’t be able to find them, an immeasurable cost! So those are the costs. On the benefit side, I see unification [and two other things I forgot - ASw]. What do you see as the benefits?” “Well, there’s harmonizing with Europe,” said Olsen, “that lowe—”. “That’s unification,” said Breyer. (Lessig(?) noted, that if France passed a law that didn’t give copyright to hate speech, because of the First Ammendment, we wouldn’t be able to harmonize with it. Similarly, if the EU extends copyright such that it violates the Copyright Clause we also can’t harmonize.) Olson couldn’t think of any other benefits.

One Justice asked how extending the copyright of a dead person by twenty years would give them extra incentive to promote science and the useful arts. “Was [famous classical dead author] sitting there and thinking, well I’d write some more if only copyright lasted another 20 years after my death? (Laughter from the crowd.)” Olson said that the publisher would be able to distribute more. Ah, one Justice joked, I guess we should give someone the copyright to Shakespeare, since there apparently is no incentive to distribute his works.

Many Justices repeatedly said that they felt it was a dumb law, that it took things out of the public domain without justification. But they were having trouble finding a way to declare it unconstitutional without also having to overturn the ‘76 extension, something they clearly didn’t want to do. No Justices said they felt that the law was a good idea.

I was impressed by how smart the Justices were. These were people who very thoroughly understood the issues and thought quickly on their feet. They were interested in long-lasting effects and classics, I doubted many cared much for Mickey or Steamboat Willie. It’s sad we don’t have this level of intellectualism and intelligence in the rest of our government today.

However, it was extremely funny that in such a formal setting, with imposing red drapes surrounding the room and the Justices sitting high above the supplicants in big chairs that the Justices were so informal. They interrupted each other, spun around and tipped back and forth in their chairs, and some even pretended to go to sleep with their head on their desks. The whole thing looked like a bunch of kids and school, all of which would almost certainly be diagnosed with ADD for their curiosity and inability to resist asking questions. Macki mentioned that Justice Clarence Thomas looked like he was chewing gum, trying hard to hide it from the teacher.

During the argument, one of the security guards busted someone who was taking notes and made him put his paper and pen away.

Soon enough the case was over, and we got up and left the building.


Outside, news media surrounded Larry, who gave a short speech I was unable to hear. Rep. Mary Bono showed her friendlyness by speaking afterwards and shaking hands with Eric Eldred. Eldred spoke third, before the media cloud dissipated. After we all got sick of talking to journalists, we walked across the street to a luncheon hosted by Public Knowledge at a Women’s Suffrage museum. A carboard Mickey-head behind bars was at the top of the building, marking the place.

Larry and Eldred gave short talks, then Larry went home for a nap. Many interesting people, like Eben Moglen (of the FSF) and Danny Weitzner (of the W3C) were there. Seth kept mentioning that the leaders of major trade associations were there, and that he felt bad for not talking to them about the broadcast flag he is fighting.

Library of Congress

After talking with lots of people for a while, Seth and I went to the Library of Congress. Seth exclaimed that the LOC Reading Room was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Unfortunately, no one was allowed in the stacks because people stole books when they were and even the reading room could only be used if you were a Congressman, a student or a registered researcher with photo ID. Seth bought many postcards of the building.

However, they did have a display room with many of their most famous works and it was very interesting.

Set Puzzles

We went back to the hotel and played Set for a bit. Seth left me with two interesting puzzles: What’s the largest number of Set cards you can lay out that have no valid set? and What’s the largest number of Set cards that can be left at the end of a legal game of Set? (which, by definition have no valid set).

Heading Home

I took a cab back to the airport. When I got there, I realized I’d left my ticket at the hotel. I asked at the desk if I could get a new ticket. They said normally cost $100. I didn’t have $100. They said they would waive the fee for me because I couldn’t pay. They started punching keys into the computer, muttering. Soon four people joined in. It looked like they were playing a computer game. “Try PQRS! No, wait that won’t work. PQRH.” “Oh yeah, then you try!” They switched positions. “Hah! You’ve got to remand and reverse before you insert.” After what seemed like an eternity, they presented me with a boarding pass.

When they put the pass through the machine, I was marked for screening. They searched me and my luggage pretty thoroughly. I was let on board. The plane was pretty empty, I slept most of the way back. At one point I woke up and the plane was shaking. The captain announced that we should buckle our seat belts and outside the window a lot of gray stuff surrounded the planes. I thought we were going to crash.

I made it home safely, and went to sleep. I didn’t wake up until 10AM. Then I wrote this. Now it is 1PM. Addendum: After I wrote this I went back to sleep and didn’t wake up until 6PM.


Many, many, many, many thanks to Larry Lessig who made something for me to come to and let me come. It was such an incredible experience, I am forever in your debt. Thanks to Seth, for putting up with me, teaching me, helping me and showing me around. Thanks to everyone who said nice things about me and made me feel at home. Thanks to Lisa for arranging the line. Thanks to Eric Miller for not going, which is the reason (I suspect) I was able to. (I’m sorry you couldn’t make it, though!) Thanks to the Justices for taking the case. Thanks to Eric Eldred and the other plaintiffs for raising the issue. Thank you for reading this. Thanks to everyone I forgot to thank, please let me know.

posted October 10, 2002 01:02 PM (Personal) #


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Aaron Swartz (