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Harvard Portrait: Ruth Okediji

January-February 2019

Ruth Okediji

Photograph by Jim Harrison


Ruth Okediji

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Ruth Okediji, Smith professor of law, traces her enthusiasm for intellectual-property law to a childhood love of literature and storytelling. When she was seven, her family immigrated to New York City from Nigeria. “I had never heard the word ‘race’ and had never been described as a black person,” she recalls. “I just kept feeling this hostility in the private school that my parents sent me to. When I couldn’t make sense of it, I started going to the New York Public Library. The books raised me.” She returned to Nigeria for college, then earned her S.J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1996; she joined the faculty in 2017 and became co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Intellectual-property law may sound arcane, but its machinery shapes the most intimate details of our daily lives, Okediji says. Everything from “the moment you wake up—the music on your alarm clock is under copyright—to singing in the shower, to forwarding email,” she explains. “You might watch a movie on Netflix and decide, ‘Oh, I really like this character, maybe I should make a video game of this character.’” Copyright law “transforms who we are as a people.” Okediji is concerned with how intellectual-property law nourishes some types of creation but erases others. “Copyright law is intimately bound up in the invention of the printing press. If you look at indigenous groups all over the world, their lifestyles and works of art and poetry are often not captured by the intellectual-property system,” she says. “It’s as though we’ve created a system that says, ‘It’s only when you come from a Western literary culture that your work matters.’ I feel profoundly moved by that injustice.”

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