Few issues rile up civic-minded Web users like copyright policy – and for good reason. U.S. copyright laws are ground zero in the fight between content creators – Hollywood movie studios, record companies, software creators, etc. – and us, the Web users, who “consume” that content. Copyright is the reason the largest Internet service providers in the U.S. are about to start bombarding subscribers with notices that say they may be breaking the law by clicking certain links. It is the force that has confused the idea of ownership in the digital era to the point that it is no longer recognizable. And it is for these reasons, and many others, that so many believe copyright reform is critical for both Web users, and the U.S. economy at large.
Which is why many an eyebrow raised on Friday after the influential Republican Study Committee (RSC) released a policy brief that called for a major overhaul of U.S. copyright policy. The findings and recommendations in the study, which is entitled “Three Myths About Copyright Law and Where to Start to Fix it,” were so “reasonable” that copyright reform evangelists in the technology community immediately jumped on the report as a sign that Washington may soon shed itself of the Hollywood lobbyist-imposed view of copyright, and begin fighting for consumer-focused change.
The elation was short-lived, however; less than 24 hours after the policy brief went up on the Web, the RSC pulled the study from its website. (We’ve reposted it below, in full.)
“Yesterday you received a Policy Brief on copyright law that was published without adequate review within the RSC and failed to meet that standard,” wrote RSC Executive Director Paul S. Teller in a mass email. “Copyright reform would have far-reaching impacts, so it is incredibly important that it be approached with all facts and viewpoints in hand.”
The “three myths” of copyright
The policy brief, authored by RSC staff member Derek Khanna, argues that current copyright policy is damaging to the U.S. economy because it “destroys entire markets,” flies in the face of free market capitalism, and imposes painful, “arbitrary” penalties on those who violate copyright law. In short: The policy brief argues exactly what critics of copyright have been saying for years. Only this time, it came from a source within U.S. House of Representatives – something that has never happened before.
Here is a summary of Khanna’s “three myths” of copyright, and why they are myths:
- Copyright was not created in order to guarantee that content creators get paid, as copyright reliant industries claim; it was created to “promote the progress of science and useful arts,” according to the U.S. Constitution. Khanna adds that the “purpose” of copyright “is to lead to maximum productivity and innovation.”
- Copyright is not, as some claim, “free market capitalism at work,” writes Khanna. It is the exact opposite: “a government-subsidized monopoly,” thanks to the massive, government-upheld penalties on those who violate copyright.
- Copyright does not lead to “innovation and productivity,” writes Khanna. He argues that, instead, copyright policy has created “a system that picks winners and losers, and the losers are new industries that could generate new wealth and added value.”
How to “fix” copyright
Khanna says these misconceptions and errant implementations of copyright policy have stifled a number of industries, including the DJ/remix industry (which he says has become “heavily retarded” in the U.S.); areas of scientific inquiry, due to the copyright of scientific papers from the 20th century; public libraries; journalism; and “added-value” industries, which are prohibited from transforming things like books and movies to include user-generated content such as “‘VH1 Pop-up video’ add-ons.”
To unbind these industries and others, Khanna suggests these reforms to copyright policy:
- Statutory damage reform: Limit the amount of money copyright violators can be charged from the current range of $750 to $150,000 per violation down to something more realistic.
- Expand fair use: Allow people to use copyrighted content to create their own content more freely. Khanna points to a paper entitled “Infringement Nation,” which “details how things you do every single day are infringing and leave every single person liable for billions in damages each year.”
- Punish false copyright claims: Copyright owners face “minimal or nearly non-existent punishment for bogus copyright claims today,” writes Khanna. He says this “often leads to de facto censorship,” something he says would be greatly diminished if there were penalties for copyright owners who falsely claim ownership.
- Heavily limit terms of copyright: Right now, copyright law says that individual copyright extends for the life of the author plus 70 years. For corporate copyright owners, the period is potentially even longer: 120 from the date of creation, or 95 years from first publication. Khanna recommends limiting this to an initial “free” 12 years of copyright protection, with the ability for copyright owners to renew the copyright for additional years at a cost.
A tipping point for copyright reform?
While the RSC has disowned Khanna’s report – for reasons officially unknown, but speculated to have something to do with “lobbyist pressure” on the organization, according to an anonymous source who spoke with Ars Technica – the ideas in the brief could represent a sea change for the GOP, which is currently seeking to draw in young voters for which copyright reform is a major issue. The Web-centric fight over the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) from earlier this year has also led Congress to reconsider its relationship with Hollywood studios and other heavy hitters in copyright-centric industries.
“It’s always hard to get legislation of any kind passed, but I think the chances have improved enormously since SOPA and PIPA were defeated earlier this year,” said Gigi Sohn, president and CEO of rights advocacy group Public Knowledge, in an email with Digital Trends.
Sohn says that a number of Khanna’s ideas – many of which have been long supported by Public Knowledge and other copyright reform advocates – could make their way through Congress in the coming months and years.
“Some of the possible provisions might include those that 1) expand fair use, including the ability to circumvent technological protection measures for lawful uses; 2) punish copyright holders who willfully and recklessly abuse copyright law and the takedown provisions of the [Digital Millennium Copyright Act]; 3) shorten copyright terms; 4) reduce statutory damages and 5) ensure that the ‘first sale’ doctrine is preserved in the digital age,” said Sohn.
In fact, some of these provisions are already floating around Washington. For example, earlier this month, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) announced a proposal that seeks to allow consumers of movies and music to convert this content into digital formats.
Why you should care (if you don’t already)
Despite the passion surrounding the copyright debate, it is perfectly understandable why many Web users’ eyes glaze over at the mention of any type of policy reform. It’s complicated, even boring. But according to experts on both sides of the debate, copyright is something we should all pay attention to.
“Copyright affects every person’s ability to create, innovate, and express themselves freely,” said Sohn. “If copyright is too strong, it makes those abilities much harder for everyone but the biggest media companies.” She adds that citizens should “tell their Senators and Representatives that reforming our copyright system is important to them and that they want Congress to act in the upcoming term to make copyright law more balanced.”
“Copyright is not a conservative or liberal issue nor is it about more government or less government,” Kuyper said in an email to Digital Trends. “We should all be on the side of copyright because it is about property rights. No one has a monopoly to music or movies, just a monopoly on their song or their movie. It is no different than car keys giving you a monopoly on your own car.” (Emphasis his.)
What do you think? Should Congress adopt the ideas promoted by Khanna and Public Knowledge? Or should copyright be even stronger than it is today? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. And check out the full RSC policy brief below: