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Mark Fischer, 64; lawyer helped define copyright in Internet age

Mark Fischer at the Fondation Louis Vuitton gallery in Paris on Thanksgiving Day 2014.

Mark Fischer, who knew nearly all there was to know about copyright and entertainment law, used his law firm blog to reach beyond his immediate clients, writing eloquently and drolly about questions that arise at the legal crossroads where celebrity, social media, and the Internet collide.

“He really carved himself out an international reputation on new media and its protections,” said John Taylor “Ike” Williams of the firm Sennott & Williams, a longtime friend who worked closely with Mr. Fischer for 25 years at previous firms.

Want to know if you can be sued for posting a scathing restaurant review on Yelp? Mr. Fischer offered guidance. Wading into disputes that might seem absurd or arcane to the untrained eye, he skipped nimbly from insight to bemusement while discussing the unauthorized use of singer Rihanna’s face on a T-shirt, whether a deejay can copyright a playlist, and a $6 million lawsuit over a tweet with a photo of actress Katherine Heigl carrying a pharmacy shopping bag.

He also offered thoughts about the famous selfies shot by a black macaque monkey in Indonesia that used a camera owned by David Slater, a wildlife photographer. Slater argued that because he owned and set up the camera, he also owned the monkey’s selfies. “Animal-created copyrighted works” present a legal quandary, Mr. Fischer wrote in a blog post that became a hit on the Internet. “My labradoodle, Madison, is talented in many ways. But I know her well enough to say with accuracy that she would much rather have a strip of bacon than a copyright. Even in recognition of the growing trend of animal rights, it may be best to keep animals and copyright lawyers apart when it comes to legal issues.”


A partner in the Boston offices of the law firm Duane Morris, Mr. Fischer was known as a rock star mentor to aspiring attorneys and aspiring rock stars alike. He died Wednesday in Massachusetts General Hospital of complications from organ transplants.


Mr. Fischer was 64 and lived in Boston, where he had searched clubs for music and clients that engaged his aesthetic tastes and his legal curiosity. Tucked inside his Boston home was a vast library of recorded music that ranged from Frank Sinatra to Taylor Swift. His technological tastes were just as expansive. As his reel-to-reel tapes evolved into CDs and online digital music, so did his expertise in intellectual property law and copyright matters. He was often quoted about the legal status of artistic creations in the Internet age.

“Is this a race where people who make cool toys are so far ahead of copyright owners that copyright law to some degree becomes marginalized? We all say that copyright law always lags behind technology,” he told The New York Times in 2000 during Napster’s legal battles over file-sharing. “With the Internet, the question is whether copyright can ever catch up. I’m an optimist, but I do think the gap is wider than ever.”

Mr. Fischer addressed that gap on a number of fronts. He had been an adjunct professor or lecturer at Berklee College of Music, Boston College Law School, New England School of Law, Northeastern University School of Law, and most recently Suffolk University Law School. Along with his blog, he coauthored a book on publishing law and wrote for a wide variety of publications. He also was a trustee of the Copyright Society of the USA and a founder of the Copyright Society of New England.


“He was a giant in the field of copyright law,” said Michael Gottfried, managing partner of the Duane Morris Boston office. “And he was really just a wonderful and engaged guy.”

A member of the Board of Overseers at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Mr. Fischer also “knew everything about Broadway and the best shows to go to,” Gottfried said. “Anything to do with the arts, Mark was there.”

Born in Evanston, Ill., Mark Alan Fischer moved with his family to New York State and then to Boston’s western suburbs, where he graduated from Wayland High School. Developing diverse tastes for music and film early on, “he always had a very discerning eye and great radar for where something interesting was happening,” said his brother Justin Fielding, an independent filmmaker in Milton.

Mr. Fischer began copyediting for publishing houses while still in high school and continued after graduating from Emerson College in 1975. “It was not until later that I discovered that the law was a great way in which I could combine a number of interests — literature, art, and mostly music — into a career,” he said in an interview with the Prince’s Daily Journal blog. “And so, I decided to attend Boston College Law School.”


He graduated in 1980 and worked for the firms Cohen & Burg, Wolf Greenfield & Sacks, Palmer & Dodge, and Fish & Richardson before joining Duane Morris in 2010. Since 1986, he had taught copyright and trademark law, intellectual property law, entertainment law, and legal aspects of the music business. “And he was a wonderful speaker,” Williams said. “He was very much in demand all over the country to lecture about new media and its protection.”

Mr. Fischer “was just the brightest, sharpest, funniest man on the planet,” said his wife, Marney Smyth Fischer.

In addition to his wife and brother, Mr. Fischer leaves his mother, Zelda (Dlugo) of Boston, and his sister, Debora Lane of Somerville.

Family and friends gathered in Boston Sunday to celebrate Mr. Fischer’s life.

“What was most unusual to me about Mark is that he was elfin in size and had more courage, more intellectual curiosity, and more sense of the comic in life than anyone I’ve ever met,” Williams said.

One of the more remarkable parts of Mr. Fischer’s life was a subject he preferred not to discuss. Illnesses dating to early in his life led to surgeries and transplants that would have stopped others, but barely slowed him. He named his dog Madison after the University of Wisconsin-Madison transplantation division, his home away from home. Part of Mr. Fischer’s estate will fund a chair in transplant surgery there, his wife said.

The phrase “I’m an optimist” pops up often in his interviews, and indeed in his life there was no room for doubt. After going into Mass. General, Mr. Fischer sent Gottfried an e-mail last Monday saying he had experienced “a minor relapse.” The next day, he was arranging plans to attend the Red Sox’ opening game.


“Mark is the epitome of a life well-lived,” his wife said. “He made such an extraordinary life for himself and those who joined him along the way.”

Last Thanksgiving, Mr. Fischer and his wife visited London, and before returning home he suggested they take the Chunnel train for a quick stop in Paris.

“No matter where we were and what we did, we always had one more thing to do before we got in the car. It was a very intense way to live because we were always aware there might not be a lot more time,” she said. “Mark lived by the motto: Do more, not less.”

Bryan Marquard
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