The Story Behind MIT and Boston University’s New Legal Clinic for Student Innovation

Today, MIT President Rafael Reif announced an exciting collaboration between MIT and the Boston University School of Law “to assist students with a broad range of legal matters related to entrepreneurship and cyber law, from basic issues associated with the founding of startup companies to novel questions about the application of laws and regulations to students’ innovation-related activities” (here’s the BU press release). The legal clinic is the culmination of years of discussions and work by student advocates, faculty, and administration to address a recurring need at MIT for robust and supportive legal help for students doing innovative work.

Update March 15, 2016: MIT has just hired Havard attorney Andy Sellars, who is deeply experienced at clinical legal education and technology law, to lead the Cyberlaw clinic.

In this blog post, I tell our story and take a moment to thank the hundreds of people who helped create this safety net for creative innovation at MIT.

Each year, hundreds of MIT students make everyday legal decisions about establishing new organizations and managing IP. We also sometimes face much more serious risks. In recent years, MIT students have faced legal challenges for groundbreaking and creative work: an MIT student arrested by homeland security for wearing e-textiles who eventually dropped out; MIT researchers who found security flaws in public transportation systems; and a gradstudent whose research helped hobbyists extend the capabilities of their gaming hardware.

Responding to the Passing of Aaron Swartz

Two and a half years ago, these problems were brought to the forefront when the activist and entrepreneur Aaron Swartz ended his life while under the cloud of a federal prosecution related to accessing the MIT network. Prompted by Hal Abelson’s report to the president on Ethan’s post about the report), I convened a group of concerned Media Lab gradstudents to meet with others at MIT and figure out our response. Upon learning the history of MIT students and community members who had faced prosecution, it became clear that one of the most urgent issues was to address the lack of support at MIT for students who were doing innovative work at the edge of the law. I worked with Kate Darling, Wendy Seltzer, Kit Walsh, and Andy Sellars to create a “Coders Know Your Rights” seminar to inform students about the legal dimensions of their work. Together with Erhardt Graeff, Jason Haas, and Chris Peterson, I co-authored a proposal for a “legal triage advisor” at MIT — essentially a legal clinic for MIT students.

Legal Challenges to Bitcoin Innovation
As we were submitting our legal clinic proposal to MIT, disaster struck again. A group of four MIT students working on bitcoin were subpoenaed over a hackathon project. MIT, whose hands had been tied legally in the past, was yet again unable to offer legal support to students in trouble, as the students bounced from office to office looking for help. The MIT general counsel finally encouraged them to contact the EFF, who offered them pro bono legal counsel.

In January 2014, when Ethan, Hal Abelson, and I learned that MIT had been unable to offer legal support to the Tidbit students for conflict of interest reasons, we coordinated over 800 faculty, researchers, and students across MIT to ask president Reif to find some other way to intervene. President Reif acted swiftly, offering his support of the students and writing to the New Jersey Attorney General. Many in the MIT community also came together to file a letter with the the brief submitted to the court by the EFF, who had taken up the students case. It’s hard to know exactly what effect our letters of support had, but the judge did acknowledge our arguments in a November opinion. Thankfully, the investigation has now been dropped (I blogged about it here).

Creating the Entrepreneurship, Intellectual Property, & Cyberlaw Program
President Reif also asked MIT provost Marty Schmidt to come up with a plan for responding to these problems in the future. Marty then asked me, Hal, and Ethan to put together a proposal for a legal clinic based on the research that other students and I had already done. We submitted those proposals in May 2014. (You can find our proposal to MIT, along with reports from our previous efforts here: Proposal for an Innovation Law Service at MIT). I can’t say how influential our work was on the MIT administration’s thinking or internal conversations, but I can definitely say that all of our essential proposals are implemented in the new collaboration between MIT and BU, especially once the cyberlaw component is introduced in 2016.

The overall outlines of the legal clinic arrangement with BU were assembled by MIT’s general counsel at the time, Greg Morgan (now Vice President and General Counsel), together with the team at BU, with Kate Darling leading from the MIT side and Joi Ito supporting the initiative. As the clinic became a real possibility, Kate brought back Ethan, Hal, Joi, and me to ensure that the final plan for the clinic would satisfy the core goals of protecting students. The clinic announced today represents our agreement on a structure that can genuinely offer students advance advice and after-the-fact support with:

  • a single point of contact for innovation-related legal issues
  • the protection of attorney-client privilege
  • a scope that includes hacking, activism, and research, not just entrepreneurship
  • a pro-innovation stance

Looking back on the last two years, I am profoundly grateful to the hundreds of students, faculty, student representatives, MIT corporation members, and alumni who came to meetings, offered advice, worked together on projects, signed letters, made introductions, and used your voice to support our work. I am especially grateful to Hal Abelson, Ethan Zuckerman, and Joi Ito, who put in the effort to see this through, and to president Reif, Marty Schmidt, Greg Morgan, and others in the MIT administration who responded to this problem with listening and action.

Kate Darling deserves particular credit for her leadership in this effort. Kate took what was just a conversation between universities and crafted a workable initiative. She took our hopes and crafted a workable initiative. Then she did the hard work of convincing people at both universities to take it up, negotiating its creation as a concrete and valuable resource for students. I’m also excited about BU’s Eve Brown, who’s starting out as director of the clinic. (If you’re a law student at BU, you can learn more about the BU/MIT clinic here).

I also want to especially thank my advisor Ethan Zuckerman, my colleagues at the Center for Civic Media, and the Media Lab student committee. Working on this issue has taken hundreds of hours away from my research, putting more work on the shoulders of my colleagues. To make time, I also had to reduce my involvement in student life, leaving gaps that other people had to fill. Thank you so much for graciously me throughout this process and filling those gaps.

Responding to Legal Threats to Innovation in Universities
MIT is not the only place where students face these risks. If you are interested to work together to support the freedom to innovate, consider coming to our Freedom 2 Innovate conference at MIT, hosted by the Center for Civic Media and the EFF, and supported by the Ford Foundation, on October 10th and 11th this year (APPLY HERE).