Law Professor Created Comic Books in Crusade to Limit Copyright

U. of California at Davis School of Law

Keith Aoki
May 15, 2011

Like the swashbuckling heroes who populate his comic books, Keith Aoki was a crusader for digital freedom. The law professor turned his artistic talents into a powerful tool for battling overzealous copyright laws.

But those who knew Mr. Aoki, of the University of California at Davis School of Law, say they will remember him best as a brilliant, funny, and humble scholar.

Mr. Aoki, whose scholarship focused on intellectual property, civil rights, critical race theory, and local-government law, died in his home in Sacramento on April 26 after an extended illness. He was 55.

Although he published in traditional law journals, he was better known for the entertaining, comic book-style publications about fair use and copyright that he and two collaborators from Duke University created. Their audience was documentary-film makers and other artistic creators who don't read law journals.

Mr. Aoki, who had bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts, drew cartoons for an underground newspaper in New York City before tiring of the starving artist's lifestyle and enrolling at Harvard Law School. A talented musician who had played violin and guitar in a rock band, he worried that stringent intellectual-property laws stifled creativity by making it hard for artists to draw on their musical or artistic influences.

After receiving his law degree, in 1990, Mr. Aoki practiced law for two years in Boston, specializing in technology law. He taught for more than a decade at the University of Oregon before ending up at Davis, in 2006.

Mr. Aoki wrote and illustrated Bound by Law? Tales From the Public Domain (Duke University Press, 2006), with James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins, a founder and director, respectively, of Duke's Center for the Study of the Public Domain. The heroine, a documentary-film maker named Akiko, battles copyright issues as she tries to capture a day in the life of New York. Everywhere she turns, she encounters copyrighted or trademarked material, whether music in a nightclub or logos at a sporting event.

Mr. Boyle became acquainted with his co-author when he was a visiting professor at Harvard Law and Mr. Aoki was a student. "I had heard about the wonderfully iconoclastic cartoons he was doing about law school, which were satirical and biting and just hilarious," he says.

Mr. Boyle wrote a moving tribute to his friend and colleague on a blog called the Public Domain.

He had encouraged Mr. Aoki to become a professor "and watched with delight as he opened his wings and soared—all the while insisting to all around him, apparently seriously, that he knew he was really an impostor in the world of academia, a fraud, an interloping artist who would be discovered any moment and given the old heave-ho."

Mr. Aoki wrote briefs supporting the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group for digital rights. Its legal director, Cindy Cohn, described him to readers of the foundation's Web site as "one of the law professors we came to count on in our many battles for your rights online."

His own artistic career began with a childhood fascination with cartoons. "I fell in love with Marvel comics when I was 7 or 8 years old," he said in a 2006 interview with The Register-Guard, a newspaper in Eugene, Ore. "I went to the drugstore and found Spiderman and Fantastic Four, and I was hooked forever."

After Mr. Aoki's death, legal blogs were filled with reminiscences that described his youthful exuberance and his willingness to challenge the status quo.

A former colleague at Oregon, Kimberly D. Krawiek, described in one entry how, at a faculty party, some children protested when an adult told them to follow the instruction book so they wouldn't get hurt on the trampoline. "All of a sudden Keith showed up, in his black leather jacket and long hair, and started chanting, 'No instructions! No rules!' And then we all started chanting along with him and jumping around on the trampoline shouting it. That's how I'll always remember Keith-a fist in the air, shouting, 'No instructions! No rules!' at the world."

Shortly before his death, Mr. Aoki had been working on illustrations for a forthcoming publication about legal copyright, called Pictures Within Pictures. The final three panels show him wearing a jet pack, ready to blast off into space. "Well, I've got law review articles to write, classes to teach, and exams to grade," it reads. "It may be a cliché, but my friends, how this story ends is up to you!! So ... choose wisely ... and adios amigos!!"

Mr. Aoki left behind a wife and two 9-year-old daughters.