Last month, Fred von Lohmann, the well-known copyright guru at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), took a job at Google. He is now working alongside William Patry as a Senior Copyright Counsel at the search giant.
Normally I do not comment on personnel changes. I get press releases from vendors saying that so-and-so, formerly Director of such-and-such at whatever major enterprise IT company, is now our new VP of Sales and Marketing; I never report on such things.
This is an exception on many levels. Fred von Lohmann is so well-known in the digital copyright field that many refer to him as “FvL” or even more simply “Fred.” From his copyleft bully pulpit at the EFF, he was the go-to quote generator for journalists covering this topic for over eight years. But more than that, he raised the EFF’s level of legitimacy on copyright issues. A senior legal authority at the US Copyright Office expressed high praise for his knowledge and talent, particularly compared to his predecessor at the EFF. He was held in great esteem even — or especially — by those who represented opposing viewpoints. David Green of NBC Universal (formerly of the MPAA) called him “thoughtful” at one of my conferences; this is one of the highest compliments that one attorney can pay another.
On the one hand, the path from nonprofit advocacy group to Google is not new. Alan Davidson took this path in 2005 when he left the Center for Democracy and Technology to head up Google’s government affairs office in Washington, DC.
But on the other hand, Fred is so deeply emblematic of copyleft ideology — unlike the more moderate Davidson — that Google’s decision to hire him has ramifications for the company’s own stances on copyright. Some of these stances are clear now in Google’s litigation with the media industry, while others will be formed as Google moves further into content-based services, such as the music service that it is expected to launch later this year.
Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Fred von Lohmann, he is probably the most respected copyleft authority outside of academia. At the EFF, he was able to expound on theories while choosing to work pro bono on cases that fit those theories. Now he will be responsible for executing the strategy of a major company whose progress continues to leave huge footprints on the world of content. It will be interesting to see how much of his philosophy he is able to retain in this more pragmatic corporate setting.
And speaking of footprints, it will be equally interesting to see how the EFF will approach the daunting challenge of filling Fred von Lohmann’s shoes.