Forget the Fiscal Cliff, How About Copyright Reform?
Move over patent reform. Copyright reform may be the next big IP issue headed for public debate.
Last Friday, the Republican Study Committee, an influential conservative caucus of House Republicans, released a report advocating major copyright reform that could have helped win the hearts and minds, to say nothing of the votes, of young, tech-savvy citizens who view U.S. copyright law as restrictive and outdated.
This would have been no small feat, as many of these young voters are young Democrats -- a population that in the recent election overwhelmingly supported President Obama.
But within 24 hours, the RSC removed the report from its website. The committees executive director, Paul Teller, issued an apology, saying the report was published without adequate review.
Technology writers and digital rights advocates didnt buy it. The idea that this was published without adequate review is silly, wrote Mike Masnick of the popular technology blog Techdirt, noting that nothing appears on the RSC website without going through a full review process. The headline for the story describing the event in the online magazine Boing Boing shouted Cowardice and Gutless Republicans, and the story itself was topped with a large photo of a chicken.
The general consensus in multiple news reports was that the RSC bowed to pressure from the motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America two organizations that have lobbied to expand copyright law. The MPAA referred all questions to the Republican Study Committee and the RIAA denied it had requested the report be removed. But the reports short-lived existence brought the issue front and center, and if reform advocates have their way, what had been a simmering discussion may soon become a full-fledged debate.
The bad news for the movie studios and record companies is that the discussion about how to make copyright law make sense in a digital age has already started in Washington, and it will continue, with our without them, Gigi Sohn, an attorney and president and co-founder of the public policy non-profit Public Knowledge, wrote in her blog.
Indeed, Public Knowledge and others advocating for change to the copyright system have at least one ally in Congress. Rep. Darell Issa, who sits on the Judiciary Committee and its Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet Subcommittee, wrote on his Twitter account Monday that the report was a very interesting copyright reform proposal and "It's time to start this copyright reform conversation."
The Congressman, who emerged as a leader on issues related to Internet rights earlier this year when he opposed the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), has already said he plans to make digital rights a priority in the new Congress.
Internet and tech-savvy activists ardently opposed SOPA, which was aimed at foreign websites that violate U.S. copyright laws. They said the law was overly broad and would hamper online speech. They also want to see changes made to current copyright law, including some of those proposed in the Republican report that officially no longer exists.
The report, written by a young RSC staffer named Derek Khanna, is highly critical of the current copyright system, which it says violates nearly every tenet of laissez-faire capitalism and gives content producers a government subsidized content-monopoly.
It starts by describing the original constitutional purpose of copyright protection and argues that the current system has veered away from the intent. It says the law as it stands favors content creators instead of focusing on the public good or what will promote the most productivity and innovation.
It concludes with a number of recommendations: It calls for a shortened copyright term, which under current law is equal to an authors life plus 70 years. It recommends reducing statutory damages, which under current law can total up to $150,000 per infringement. It recommends that penalties for bad faith copyright claims be increased. And it advocates for the expansion of fair use.
But these recommendations were too far-reaching for the RSC, which said it released the report in error. It failed to take into account the range of perspectives held by RSC members and within the conservative community, the executive director said in a statement.
Advocates for change are hoping the RSCs error will be the impetus for getting that range of perspectives aired in public. We hope that this initial release does in fact reflect a serious effort to move the Congressional dialogue on copyright forward to deal with the problems that citizens, consumers, and creators have long recognized, Public Knowledges Sohn said.
Even those accused of maneuvering to have the report removed seem aware that the time for public debate may have come. We appreciate that there are many thoughtful perspectives on ensuring that the copyright laws adequately protect creativity and culture while fostering innovation, Mitch Glazier, the RIAAs senior executive vice president said in a statement. And we look forward to an ongoing dynamic dialogue about these vital issues.