boalt.org: the early years
as told by Co-founder Oscar Cisneros (May 2004)
boalt.org has always been primarily about the intersection between public interest and law and technology. Other early goals included supporting the Boalt Hall student body by promoting web publishing literacy, lobbying for or providing additional computing resources and working with other public interest minded institutions and groups such as the Samuelson Clinic.
In the Spring semester of 1999, Chris Ridder and I were approached by Kenton Abel and Jason Schultz. They wanted to know if we would carry the torch on an organization at that time known as BOLT, the Berkeley Organization of Law and Technology. They pitched it to us as a sister organization to BTLJ, the Berkeley Technology Law Journal. BOLT, they said, was the political wing of the journal, free to raise a ruckus and muckrake about the public interest where the journal had to steer a more conservative course. Being fun-loving geeks, Chris and I gladly accepted.
In our first year at the law school, Chris and I were frustrated by the snail’s pace in which the administration was moving toward offering additional computing resources to the school. Boalt Hall at that time was ranked first in the nation for IP programs, but the resources offered to students were minimal. Chris and I envisioned free @boalt.org email addresses for students, free web space for student groups, and the strands of a student community formed into a fabric through online discussion and discourse. The school made some progress: multimedia PCs with scanners and speakers were added to the computer lab. Having sat as student reps in Boalt Hall’s Computer Policy Committee for a year, Chris and I felt we needed to act on our own.
The first thing we set our minds to was a website. These were the heady days of the dot com boom at Boalt. Firms poured money into the school and wooed the students with a lavishness matched only by the lay-offs and diminishment that would follow in the rippling wake of the Great Dotcom Bubble Burst. There was still a “newness” to the web. Few student groups or journals ran their own websites at the time. Chris and I fancied that a strong showing online might convince public interested minded geeks to come to Boalt; and we knew that others could publish as well and lend chords to the chorus of diverse voices at the school.
We soon discovered that bolt.org was already registered though the owner did not operate a site on that domain. It was interesting haggling with the guy who was sitting on the domain and not doing anything with it. I told him who we were and that we had no real cash to give him, save registration value plus a small extra amount. He kept to his guns and refused to sell the domain. More on this guy later.
So we were stuck without a domain name (the other “bolt” domains were also taken). We also thought that BOLT was a lousy name. Sure, it was accurate and descriptive, but how many times a day can you say “Come to the BOLT meeting, as in B-O-L-T.” boalt.org, however, was not taken and it had the attributes we wanted: it was short and related to the law school. We registered the domain and sometime in the early fall we began publishing boalt.org off an old Macintosh Computer that was jacked into the International House network. We changed the organization’s name to “Boalt.org”.
We knew this path was fraught with risks. We had read of student groups at other schools that had gotten into legal trouble for using the trademarks of their institutions. “Cybersquatting” was a problem that the courts, Congress and a lot of attorneys were still hashing out. But Chris and I felt strongly that we not only had fair use rights to the name, but that also, as Boalt Hall students, we were part of the name. Whatever goodwill was associated with the mark “boalt” derived from the faculty, the heritage of the law school and the students of the law school. We also knew that trademark law had its limits and that use of a mark in a manner that did not mislead consumers was one the boundaries — not to mention fair use doctrines and the First Amendment.
From the beginning, we always made it exceedingly clear, sometimes exaggeratedly clear that Boalt.org was a student-made student published website. We used disclaimers and, indeed, the banner of our first front page proclaimed our status. We quickly ran into problems.
The administration was very concerned about students publishing on the web under the name boalt.org. There was a big fuss and the Computer Policy Committee meetings were contentious at times. Chris and I reiterated our position: that more computing resources were needed, that our goal was to help in recruitment, that more groups needed to be online, and that we had a right to use the name under applicable fair use doctrines and the First Amendment.
The administration would have none of it, asking that we move out operations to “boalties.org” or something similar. Chris and I remained steadfast and we always knew that boalt.org and the student groups it would host would only make the law school shine, not represent and embarrassment to the institution. At one point, however, an administrator demanded to know what we would do if someone wanted to publish “porn” on our server, to which Chris responded, famously, “If you have anyone who wants to publish porn, you tell them to come to us!”
It was all uphill from there. We worked to assuage the administrations concerns. Chris and I were political noobies. We didn’t know how Boalt Hall operated. Academics are understandably concerned about their image in the eyes of their peers; Boalt has a reputation to maintain and the law school is a consensus-based institution. We agreed to be bound by campus web-publishing guidelines even though we were eventually hosted off campus. And we got very crucial support from the faculty as well.
Professor Bob Berring supported us, having predicted that Chris and I would arrive at his office hours eventually. He told us that he had mentioned to his peers that if the law school did not embrace technology, the students would do it themselves. We fulfilled his prophecy.
Our arguments regarding the domain were also supported by Professor Pamela Samuelson who, at the request of the Dean, wrote a brief legal memo about boalt.org. She wrote that, in her judgement, “boalt.org” was a descriptive term when used to identify an organization associated with the law school and that there was no resulting confusion that offended trademark law. My favorite part of that memo was when she said that it was “conceivable” that a hypothetical group known as the “Bilateral Organization of Astronomers, Leafblowers, and Teachers” (BOALT) might also have a legitimate descriptive interest in the domain and that because of this possibility it was a good thing that the domain was being used in connection with the law school.
Professor Samuelson’s legal thoughts helped tremendously both for their substance and because Boalt Hall is a consensus-based institution. With the support of these professors, and a solid argument under the law, Dean Herma Hill Kay was persuaded and allowed us to more forward with boalt.org.
Around this time, the guy who owned bolt.org contacted me and said he was ready to sell the domain. I told him no thanks and Chris and I had a real hoot about that guy.
After the initial storm blew over we set out to do what we had dreamed of. We helped student groups get online by either designing pages for them or assisting them in their work. We always required the groups for whom we designed pages to learn how to publish themselves so they could maintain the sites. I taught several classes informally at the school and in my home for students to learn about HTML, Macromedia Dreamweaver and the tricks to getting the search engines to effectively crawl a site.
The first real success we had was the Criminal Law Journal. Designed by Boalt student James Mink, the CLJ page was hosted on boalt.org from its inception. Within one month of going live, CLJ received its first submission. I designed pages for La Raza, La Raza Law Journal and the Center for Social Justice and was very pleased to see other groups begin to sprout up. Other boalt.orgers assisted student groups with web design as well.
Another major component of boalt.org’s early days was our speaker series which featured prominent attorneys and legal minds speaking strongly for the public interest in law and technology. Each year, Professor Samuelson was gracious enough to speak to the students about “The Public Interest in Intellectual Property Law”. We scheduled her talk very early in the year to mold like clay the easily impressionable minds of eager beaver 1Ls. 😉 Many public interested minded students had never considered the public interest aspects of intellectual property law and Professor Samuelson’s lecture always gave a great primer with legal topic examples of the day.
During the years that Chris and I were at the law school, boalt.org’s cause was greatly enlarged by the assistance of Eddan Katz, Laura Quilter, Nicky Ozer, Jeff Schrepfer, Colleen Chien, Margaret Thomas, Michael Lousteau and others. We also had great relationships with the Berkeley Center For Law and Technology, who provided us yearly funding, and connections with other groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Organizationally speaking, boalt.org adopted a “geeks who do the work” approach to leadership. It was a consensus-based organization. The geeks who did the work made the decisions in consultation with the boalt.org Student Board; then they did the work.
These days when I return to the boalt.org website I am very pleased by what I see. It’s quite moving to track the exploits of today’s boalt.org leadership and to see the flowering multiplicity of student group websites hosted on the site. So far no one has published porn on boalt.org, as the administration once feared, but many good things have come to pass as Chris and I predicted. May the public interest in law and technology be ever aided by the geeks at boalt.org.