Tech champion, watchdog heads to Google

Fred von Lohmann, a veteran of the Internet copyright wars and EFF's senior staff attorney, has taken a position as Google's senior copyright counsel.

Fred von Lohmann, likely the technology's sector most recognized legal advocate, has called it quits as senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Fred von Lohmann is Google's new senior copyright counsel. Electronic Frontier Foundation

One of Grokster's lead attorneys in the landmark MGM v. Grokster case, von Lohmann confirmed he is leaving EFF to take a job as Google's senior copyright counsel. In an e-mail Wednesday, von Lohmann declined to comment further.

If you're a fan of unimpeded innovation, the free distribution of content over the Web, and Internet users' right to privacy then you should take your hat off to von Lohmann. The way his supporters see it, von Lohmann has toiled to prevent tech start-ups accused of copyright violations from being stomped into jelly by mammoth entertainment conglomerates.

A supporter of the free flow of information, von Lohmann, 42, has spoken out on behalf of or offered legal advice to a score of companies, including YouTube, Veoh, TorrentSpy, Lime Wire, IsoHunt, Grokster, and RealNetworks.

In a 2007 CNET story about the growing number of file-sharing services forced to close down, von Lohmann sized up how technologists viewed the copyright clash between them and content creators and the stakes involved.

"Everybody forgets that when the VCR was first developed, most of the uses were infringing copyright," said von Lohmann, a past recipient of California's Lawyer of the Year award. "There was no Blockbuster [video rental stores] or legitimate way to rent movies back then."

Later, the VCR would be the foundation for the multi-billion dollar home-video industry and it wouldn't have existed if the studios had succeeded in killing the VCR. "It's vital to leave room for innovation," von Lohmann said. "You have to give technology a chance to develop into something."

"Those that may have had interests implicated by EFF policies and positions may have had reason to fear him but not consider him a foe."
--Jonathan Zittrain, law professor

Of course, if you're a copyright owner who has seen your work illegally distributed on file-sharing networks for a decade, you might view von Lohmann as a piracy enabler. Moreover, he and EFF have appeared to tilt at windmills at times--most of the tech companies championed by EFF that have fought it out in court against the entertainment sector have lost and been driven out of business.

Lime Wire is likely the next casualty . The largest file-sharing service, a company that von Lohmann advised, is expected by legal experts to be shut down in coming weeks by a federal court in Manhattan.

But in his backing of cases that typically faced long odds, von Lohmann's competence as a lawyer and reasonable demeanor has stood out in a copyright debate that grows more mean spirited and acrimonious by the day.

Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor and co-director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said von Lohmann reminds him of the fictional Dr. Seuss character, The Lorax, a defender of the environment.

It's like "'I am the Lorax and I speak for the trees,'" Zittrain said. "To me Fred is somebody who has been in the trenches as a litigator and that means you must take views and stick with them to do battle. Yet, I don't know him as ideologically inflexible.

"It's rare to see somebody in the trenches that long and adopt and stick by structured positions but who has some flexibility to say 'What is the right answer here?'" Zittrain continued. "That's why those that may have had interests implicated by EFF policies and positions may have had reason to fear him but not consider him a foe."

 

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