Dubbed the Copyright Commons, Lessig's project aims to spur sharing and use of works ranging from software code to music in a way that he and other critics say has been stifled by copyright laws. Drawing on the experience of open-source software programming, the group hopes to create new digital licenses that will cut out painful legal wrangling and rights disputes.
At its simplest level, the new license system would let people who stumble across a piece of music, art or software online know quickly how it can be used. In much the same way that an MP3 file might have the song name and artist encoded in the file itself, a work using the Commons license would include information on where the song could be used, in what form, and who needed to be paid as a result.
But the Commons, which Lessig plans to launch officially in early May, will also serve as a kind of rights clearinghouse for a limited number of works, ranging from software to poetry. While the scale of this project is still unclear, the group plans to defend the legal rights and integrity of whatever public domain content is put into this "conservancy."
"Both of these are (ways) to use existing...intellectual property law...to facilitate broader use and innovation," Lessig said in an interview.
Lessig has been one of a small group of academics who have joined programmers and entrepreneurs in saying that movie studios, record companies and other corporate copyright interests have used the legal system as a blunt tool to squelch new ways of sharing and distributing copyrighted works online.
While stopping short of saying that companies or services like Napster, MusicCity, or Morpheus should be allowed to run unchecked, he has warned that the lawsuits targeting those companies threaten to put a clamp on technical and artistic innovation. Creative as well as technical innovation depends on the free sharing of information, Lessig has argued.
The copyright repository portion of the project is initially aimed at encouraging people or companies who had been leery of putting works in the public domain to do so, by providing a group that will defend any legal rights and will ensure that the original work isn't corrupted by others' use.
Lessig isn't yet saying how many works--or what mix--will be included in the early days of the repository. But there will be a budget and a mechanism for defending the authors' or artists' rights, he said.
"We'll only accept (works) when we're strong enough to defend the rights," he said.