Activists Promote Revisionist History of DMCA

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Earlier this month, Rolling Stone published an article by Steve Knopper called Inside YouTube’s War With the Music Industry.  I would characterize the article as more of a glimpse than an inside view; but setting that aside, the article contained a quote about the DMCA that caught my attention.

Knopper focuses on the fact that several major stars like Taylor Swift, Paul McCartney, and Beck recently signed an open letter to Congress demanding revision to Section 512 of the DMCA.  The article is actually too short and broad to really get into the nitty-gritty, but anyone who follows the issue knows that the crux of all artists’ complaints with the DMCA is that it has unintentionally enabled platforms like YouTube to distribute works without a negotiated license and to monetize mass infringement of works without providing rights holders an effective means of control—as the law was meant to do.

Toward the end of the article is a quote from Corynne McSherry, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  Keeping in mind that her statement is brief and can be taken out of context, McSherry said, “I don’t think copyright owners appreciate what they got [with the DMCA]. In 1997, if you wanted to get music taken offline, you had to go to court.”

I don’t know if McSherry added any nuance to that statement, but as presented, it connotes a revisionist history that feeds a general misunderstanding of DMCA and how it got here.  Both tech-industry advocates and mainstream reporters are apt to continue the narrative that Section 512 is principally a takedown provision that happens to have a liability shield (safe harbor). In fact, it’s the other way around, and the difference is actually rather important.

Why the DMCA is seen as flawed for rights holders.

Drafting of Title I of the DMCA began in December of 1996 in order to implement the WIPO Copyright Treaty adopted that same month.  The treaty was a special agreement under the Berne Convention to which the US has been a signatory since 1989.  Title I is primarily known for Section 1201, which prohibits circumvention of technical protection measures (TPM) used to protect copyrighted digital goods. In the late 1990s, this would largely have applied to products like DVDs and CDs, but the DMCA was intended to anticipate copyright enforcement on the internet.  (1201 has its own criticisms, as noted in a recent post.)

While Title I was being debated, major ISPs, which at that time were telecoms led by Verizon and AT&T, petitioned Congress for a shield from monetary liability for copyright infringement—the shield we now call the “safe harbor.”  These service providers knew that users would continue to upload infringing content but argued that only the rights holders could know what was infringing and that the rights holders were in the better position to identify infringements than the ISPs were.  These service providers further argued that, if they were constantly vulnerable to litigation for contributory infringement, this would stifle the development of the still-fledgling internet.

It is worth noting that when the ISPs initially argued that the responsibility of “ferreting out” online copyright infringement should fall to the rights holders, Roy Neel of the United States Telephone Association highlighted the availability of “spiders” (now called “bots”) that owners could use to automate search for infringing files.  Today, this same automation, which has grown in scale in an effort to keep up with the scope and frequency of infringement, is regularly characterized by the internet industry and “digital rights” activists as an overreach that cannot help but chill speech online. The history that this automation was a key component of what the ISPs initially lobbied for is rewritten almost daily with statements like the one by McSherry.

In response to the ISPs’ request for the liability shield, major rights holders, including the MPAA and RIAA, negotiated conditions the service providers would have to meet in order maintain the “safe harbor” status—most prominently that the ISPs had to adopt systems for removing infringing material upon request (i.e. takedown). The result of these negotiations are the provisions in Title II of the DMCA, particularly Section 512, which is the part of the law the aforementioned music stars are asking Congress to amend.

So the request for safe harbor came first, and the takedown provisions were one part of the conditional compromise.  Rights holders had not petitioned Congress for a takedown provision in order to avoid the burden of litigation, which is what McSherry’s statement can imply to the casual reader.

Meanwhile, in 1996, we were all still dialing into AOL; Napster was three years away from changing everything; YouTube would not launch until 2005; and users could only rather slowly view a single photograph online, let alone stream HD video. At the time Title II of the DMCA was drafted, neither Congress nor the rights holders—nor perhaps some of the online service providers—quite anticipated the massive growth in online infringement that was to come.  Plus, the parties were—perhaps naively—sanguine about the prospect that new technological protection measures would be adopted through collaboration between the ISPs and the rights holders—which happens to be exactly what Congress had instructed both parties to do. That collaboration never quite happened.

Meanwhile, many rights holders would argue today that subsequent court interpretations of DMCA have undermined the intent of Congress, giving ISPs so much latitude in the manner in which they conformed to its conditions that the law inadvertently creates an incentiveto enable user infringement at the volume we see today. As Robert Levine points out in his book Free Ride, the DMCA’s lead architect, former commissioner of the USPTO Bruce Lehman, admitted at a conference in 2007 that the law had been a great disservice to the creative industries.

But are rights holders better off?

Is Corynne McSherry correct to say that copyright owners are fortunate to have the DMCA because its takedown provisions obviate the need for costly litigation?  It’s hard to imagine this is actually the case.  If we’re talking about major rights holders, like big studios or labels, consider the options …

Option 1 – Without DMCA

Several years of expensive litigation against a single provider for multiple infringements in which the rights holder would stand a decent chance of winning the case, where the rights holder may be afforded some injunctive relief, and whereby the case may act as a deterrent to other providers regarding infringement on their platforms.

Option 2 – With DMCA

A round-the-clock, expensive process of requesting individual files be removed one at a time from multiple platforms only to have the same files reappear while some service providers monetize these uses, become too big to sue, and remain free from liability forever.

I’m not in a position to speak for the major rights holders here, but I don’t know if McSherry really wants to ask them if they wouldn’t choose Option 1.  When Viacom sued YouTube in 2007 for a billion dollars’ worth of infringements and the case was finally decided in YouTube’s favor in 2013, it is not unreasonable to imagine a different outcome absent the DMCA safe harbor provision.  (Keep in mind that this particular post isn’t about anyone’s opinion of how things should be, only a consideration of McSherry’s assertion that rights holders are better off under Section 512 of the DMCA.)

For smaller, independent rights holders, they’re kind of hosed either way but maybe a bit better off with Option 1.  Absent the DMCA, they could not afford to sue the likes of Google anyway; but with the DMCA, the takedown provisions are useless as a means of enforcement because of the Whack-a-Mole problem. If, on the other hand, the majors had successfully sued a big provider like YouTube (i.e. had Viacom gone the other way) independents may have benefitted by proxy.

For one thing, if Viacom had won its case, it’s a pretty good bet YouTube would suddenly discover a remarkable capacity for mitigating infringement on its platform.  Secondarily, had Viacom set the opposite precedent, this would have empowered independent rights holders to either litigate or threaten to litigate as a means of enforcing their rights across the web.  So, McSherry’s note that if you wanted to get music offline in 1997, you had to go to court is only partly true and not necessarily the lesser alternative for rights holders, as she implies.

Yes, YouTube itself would have evolved differently—and a few billionaires might only be multi-millionaires today—but do the social benefits of web platforms have to come at the expense of permission and compensation-free exploitation of other people’s work?

Over the weekend, I watched a 1912 film on YouTube called Falling Leaves by Alice Guy Blaché—a file that silent film accompanist and historian Ben Model uploaded along with his own piano composition.  To me, this is a great example of the information-age ideal.  I can research an important work in film history, which has long been in the public domain, and discover a contemporary artist/historian at the same time. Great. Love it.

But was the progress of YouTube—whose growth was substantially subsidized by copyright infringement—the only history that could possibly have resulted in my seeing Guy-Blaché’s film and finding Model’s work in 2016? Not necessarily. So, I don’t know if McSherry really meant to play the alternate histories game here, because it is certainly possible to imagine the benefits of the internet evolving since 1997 without the hundreds of millions of infringements that occur every month. And that was certainly what Congress expected when Title II of the DMCA was being negotiated. So, now that it’s clear the intended consequences did not come to pass, maybe amending the law isn’t such a crazy idea.


To support revision to the DMCA, click the link in the sidebar to sign the Take Down/Stay Down petition.

Posted in Law & Policy | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Ad Hominem

First of all, I hate Twitter.  Not so much as a forum for sharing links to stories or the occasional witticism.  But as a platform for “arguing” a point of view, let’s be honest, it’s total crap.  140 characters to express a thought is nothing but a means to see which idea is the most popular, not which is the most valuable or well-reasoned.  Being a cynic, I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s rare those two columns are aligned, and even less so since the dawn of social media.

The shorthand of Twitter leads even thoughtful, intelligent people say really stupid things.  It’s where someone will complain about being the target of an ad hominem attack while committing an ad hominem attack without any hint of self-awareness or even a clear indication that the tweeter knows what an ad hominem attack is in the first place.  So, let’s clear that up.

And ad hominem attack is one that seeks to disqualify the position of a speaker or author based solely on a criticism of his or her character.  This can be as nasty as saying something like “What does she know, she’s gay?” while debating, say, education policy.  But it can also be as benign as criticizing the speaker based on his or her affiliations with work or political party, etc.  This is a major dysfunction in our politics today—the assumption that valid positions never come from sources we’ve decided are bad or that everything the “good guys” say should be accepted without question.

It is not ad hominem to criticize aspects of the way in which a speaker or author presents his or her position while also rebutting the substance of that position.  For instance, if an author writes something with which you disagree and writes it in an arrogant, offensive, or sarcastic tone, it is fair game to criticize both the style and the substance because the style is part of what’s being communicated. I give you Mr. Trump, who is usually saying something false and almost always in a manner specifically designed to offend.  Technically, criticizing Trump’s hair in context to his candidacy is an ad hominem attack, but that may be about it.

Recently, Steven Tepp, CEO of Sentinel Worldwide posted an article on Medium accusing the organization Public Knowledge of exceeding the bounds of discourse by leveling ad hominem and factually selective attacks on the US Copyright Office.  In reference to various topics, Tepp states that PK has characterized the Copyright Office as either unqualified to comment or that it has overstepped its purview.  His observation of PK would be consistent with recent posts I’ve written noting, for instance, how the EFF seeks to dismiss or misrepresent the role of the Copyright Office with regard to the FCC “set-top box” proposals or its mission to have Section 1201 struck down as unconstitutional.  Just as a matter of basic logic, if any party is stating that the Copyright Office has no business weighing in on copyright issues, this ought to trigger at least a mildly skeptical response.  If an organization funded by the pharmaceutical industry stated that the FDA was out of bounds, would you take it on face value?

But how did Public Knowledge and Mike Masnick, and no doubt many of the usual suspects, respond to Tepp’s criticism on Twitter?  By calling him a former Copyright Office employee turned MPAA lobbyist.  In other words, an ad hominem attack.  No rebuttal to the substance of what Tepp said—which is limited to statements of fact about process and the law—just a dismissal out of hand because he’s on “the wrong side.”  It doesn’t really matter what the subject is, by the way, this is how we’re steadily destroying political discourse 140 characters at a time.

In this particular case, with just a couple of tweets, non-experts declare the experts dismissible (see climate change deniers) and also reinforce the bias that Hollywood is running Washington despite the mountain of evidence that the most influential corporation throughout the entire administration is Google.  Compare the number of Google lobbyist visits (128) to the White House to the number of MPAA visits (0) and then decide Steven Tepp’s criticism of Public Knowledge is invalid because MPAA.  Unfortunately, on social media, this form of debate is sufficient for many people.

Over the last four years, my delving into specific issues related to copyright and the digital age has made me pay closer attention to how generalized many of my own biases have been as a liberal and a Democrat.  Nearly all of the legal experts I have met—and Tepp is one of them—have been extremely thoughtful and balanced in their views, and at least half of them are political conservatives. In fact, this recent post by a new young blogger Rebecca Cusey caught my attention because she’s making what she calls a “conservative” case for copyright, but what’s interesting is that part of her argument invokes labor rights, which is a traditional Democratic party plank.

Not surprisingly, whether the issue is copyright or trade or the economy or the environment or police reform, there are still people in the center, trying to work from a qualified understanding of facts and seeking the best ideas no matter whence they come. Social media rejects this by its very nature.  It feeds on and reinforces careless, associative logic that insists everyone remain in his camp and carry the standard of whatever label has been assigned.  It’s mostly ad hominem.  That’s why I hate Twitter.

Posted in Law & Policy | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

The DOJ & Songwriters Simplified (mostly)

The performing rights organization (PRO) called ASCAP was formed on February 13, 1914 when a group of about 100 American composers met at the Hotel Claridge in New York City to create a mechanism for collecting “public performance” royalties.  The 1909 Copyright Act had extended the performance right to this class of copyright holders, but it did not define exactly what “public performance” actually meant.  Part of that definition came with the Supreme Court case Herbert v Shanley Co. (1917), in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes offered the opinion that music played in a venue like a restaurant constitutes a “public performance” even if the customers are not charged a fee for the music itself.  The premise was, and continues to be, that the venue relies on music just like other products it needs to run the establishment, and so the music plays a key role in the profit interest of the venue.

In a 1923 case, radio broadcasts were determined also to be “public performances,” but the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) was critical of ASCAP’s monopoly control over the music and its ability to set licensing rates at will.  In response, NAB formed the competitor BMI, and when this failed to have a mitigating effect on ASCAP’s rates, the broadcasters banned ASCAP music from the airwaves.  That’s when the DOJ showed up and told everybody to get out of the pool.  Justice sued ASCAP and BMI, and both national radio networks at the time, for violation of the Sherman Anti Trust Act.  The result of this action was a rate-setting system known as consent decrees—compulsory licenses the two PROs must grant for “public performances” of their music according to rates set by a “rate court” established at the federal court for the Southern District of New York.

Cathedral RadioFor the next 70 years, the PRO licensing system under the consent decrees generally served all parties—the composer/songwriters, venues and broadcasters, and the general public.  Yes, there are anecdotes describing various ways in which the system has failed or overreached to the detriment of a venue or even a member songwriter; and these stories naturally provide grist for the anti-copyright mill that loves to portray all rights-enforcement regimes as universally extortionist.  But many of these stories cited by critics like Mike Masnick pertain to collecting organizations outside the US, and even those associated with ASCAP and BMI are either old enough or nuanced enough to require deeper consideration in context to the overall cost/benefit of the organizations over many decades.

Fast-forward to the digital-age, when “public performance” is a whole new animal.  Streaming services, which are unquestionably a benefit to consumers, simultaneously reduce demand for sales of physical media and digital downloads, and they reduce demand for traditional broadcast radio, which was the distribution format that led to the consent decrees in the first place.  Plus, streaming affects the worldwide music market almost overnight. Unfortunately, for the songwriters and composers, the rates set for a pre-streaming market were suddenly worth doodley-squat in a streaming market.  This is why you hear about a songwriter making about $30 for a million plays of a song.

So, the songwriters and composers campaigned the DOJ to amend the consent decrees in order to allow more flexibility and more efficiency in licensing—a regime that would better reflect the dramatically changed, digital market. In response, the internet industry and its network of pundits complained that the PROs would then be free to capriciously raise rates, which would “stifle innovation” and harm consumers. For copyright watchers, this is a funny one because this same crowd usually argues that existing laws are doing all the stifling, but in this special case, it’s the WWII-era regime that is actually fostering innovation. Gotta hand it to the DOJ of 1941 for anticipating Spotify like that!

By now, consumers should understand that innovation often means money—money in the pockets of OSP shareholders made on the backs of rights holders who are getting hosed.  But last month, DOJ Deputy Director Renata Hesse not only affirmed the consent decrees, but she went a step further by rejecting the practice of “fractional licensing” for works made through collaborations.  When songwriters or composers represented by different PROs collaborate on a musical work, a user has had to obtain licenses from both organizations.  Hesse ruled that either PRO may license 100% of any work in either catalogue—a decision so deaf and blind to understanding the nature of music licensing that observers like music attorney Chris Castle can only conclude that Hesse’s former role as a Google attorney provides the only rational explanation.

Meanwhile, in an August 8th post on Techdirt, Mike Masnick ‘splains how the DOJ decision was not only the right decision, but one that will be “good for songwriters,” even if the songwriters are too naive to realize it yet.  I’ll let that hubris hang there for a moment, and then quote this refrain of one of Mike’s favorite saws:

“It’s kind of insane that we have to point this out over and over again, but the legacy industry always fights against new innovations in the false belief that it will harm revenue — yet when they learn how to embrace the opportunities, it turns out that a larger audience has been created and there are even more ways to make money.” 

I can’t decide which is more arrogant, the unwavering faith that he knows better than all the songwriters what’s best for them, the feigned exasperation at having to explain it again to these dumb songwriters, or the use of the royal we in this statement.  Or was that a revealing slip?  Which we is he speaking for here?

Of course, it may not matter what the pundits think because the DOJ may have opened up Pandora’s Box to let the music fly away.

As David Lowery explains—and David has written like way more songs than Mike Masnick—the DOJ may have spawned an unenforceable clusterfuck, the result of which could be tracks disappearing from streaming and other services.  In a recent blog post, Lowery states that it could cost him thousands of dollars in legal fees to revise the contracts between him and collaborators on a portion of his catalog.  In fact, some of those collaborators have passed away, so he would have to negotiate with their estates, making the process even more complicated. Can the DOJ constitutionally compel Lowery and thousands of other songwriters and composers to incur these legal fees to rewrite these contracts? We should hope not.

So, what will songwriters in this circumstance do?  The most cost-effective thing for them to do would be to pull the tracks from ASCAP & BMI that are more trouble than they’re worth.  That will reduce the music available on streaming services and also create a thorny problem for venues currently paying PRO licenses.  Right now, the coffee house where I’m sitting has all three licenses—ASCAP, BMI, & SESAC—and can play any song without worrying about it.  What happens if portions of the ASCAP and BMI catalogs are no longer covered by their licenses?  This is just a glimpse of the “chaos” the Copyright Office and others warned the DOJ would ensue as a result of their ruling this way on consent decrees.

The entire history of American copyright is one in which the contours of the law have been reshaped to conform to changing market conditions in order to protect artists and maintain the incentive to create and distribute.  As is so often the case today, the DOJ seems to be taking the narrow, Googley-eyed view that artists will continue to create and distribute no matter what happens.  Consumers are free to decide whether the songwriters know what they’re talking about or the copyright antagonists are correct.  But if they choose to ignore the former, I really hope they like the musical stylings of the latter.

Posted in Law & Policy, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

FCC Set-Top Box Proposal Is About Copyright

Let’s clear one thing up right off the bat. Consumers are not entitled to high-quality TV programming.  It’s a business. If that business doesn’t make sense, the shows won’t be produced.

I know that seems obvious, but as with so many arguments made by technology companies seeking to hijack the distribution of works for themselves, this latest one  seems to proceed from a typical assumption that the “content” will just be there no matter what.  As I said in an earlier post on this same subject, if the producers and distributors are correct in their criticisms, the FCC set-top box proposal could provide consumers with new methods of acquiring a lot less content over time.

In a nutshell, the TV programming we enjoy is made available because the producers (copyright owners) enter into licensing agreements with distributors, referred to as Multichannel Video Programming Distribution (MVPDs). Generically we tend to call MVPDs “cable providers,” but MVPDs include satellite and various other ways to receive television programming that has been licensed from the copyright owners.  These licenses sit on top of a network of other licenses between the producers and their suppliers, advertisers, etc. For instance, the actors on a show not only receive fees for their performances but also have residuals and health & pension plans paid through SAG from those licensing fees that are paid by the MVPDs.

Not to say it’s complex, but Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante, in her 17-page August 3rd letter to the FCC, referred to “a constellation of arrangements between MVPDs and program producers.”  Pallante further states …

“… the copyrighted works that make up an MVPD’s multichannel video programming are produced and made available to the public only as a result of complex, private negotiations between content owners and MVPDs, and on the understanding that the MVPDs will make works available to the public in accordance with the terms of the resulting licenses. Typically, a violation of the license terms will constitute either copyright infringement or breach of contract.”

What the FCC says it wants to do is to unchain consumers from the dreaded box — that thing we rent from the cable companies to unscramble the channels, and which symbolizes whatever frustrations we might feel with the service, the pricing, or the lack of competition in the pay TV market.  I feel these frustrations myself, so on the surface, Chairman Wheeler’s proposal to give me options to watch TV more flexibly—through tablets, smart TVs, and other products sounds appealing.  But there’s a bug.

The proposal would mandate that the MVPDs make their programming and data available to third-party manufacturers of devices (surprise, Google is one of these), who would not pay license fees but would be free to distribute, brand, and monetize with advertising as they see fit.  The producers and the MVPDs have argued that this circumvents the aforementioned network of complex and costly licensing; and some producing interests have also raised the concern that because these third-parties operate on web platforms, a more seamless integration between legal and illegal viewing may exacerbate the adverse effects of piracy on the market.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation asserts that none of the criticisms of the FCC proposal made by producers and MVPDs implicate copyright law at all.  Mitch Stoltz of the EFF this week argued that the proposal is exclusively about allowing new technology products to come to market and to provide consumers with new choices.  Interestingly, despite his insistence that the proposal has nothing to do with copyright, Stoltz—and Cory Doctorow in a companion EFF post—refers to one of the most important copyright cases to support this position.

Sony v Universal (aka the Betamax case) is the reason consumers may use recording devices for “time-shifting” TV programs for their personal use; and these proponents of the FCC proposal appear to be arguing that Sony provides the only precedent needed to reject any further consideration of copyright in this matter.  Stoltz writes …

“Copyright gives rightsholders power to control copying, but not technology design. In fact, that sort of control is the antithesis of copyright’s purpose. Over thirty years ago, in Sony v. Universal, the Supreme Court refused to allow movie studios to “extend [their] monopoly” into “control over an article of commerce”—the videocassette recorder—“that is not the subject of copyright protection.” Today, you can search all 280 pages of the Copyright Act, and you won’t find anything that says a copyright holder has the power to control search functionality, or channel placement, or to decide who can build a DVR or video app.”

But here’s what Register Pallante says about Sony in her letter to the FCC:

Sony itself focused on the distribution of an article of commerce where the seller had no ongoing relationship with the purchaser after the sale, and no connection to the content being exploited.  Nor did the Court address fair use where the device distributor was itself engaged in copying activities, as opposed to private home users. Both of these factors could conceivably be present with respect to devices and services under the Proposed Rule.  Nor have courts gone so far as to obligate rights holders to provide content in a manner that would facilitate time-shifting or other non-infringing uses.” 

So, maybe the FCC proposal has a little to do with copyright.  And that word obligate is an important one, referring back to my opening note that there is no right to TV programming.  Its production has to make sense as a business, and that only works because of copyright.

A rights holder of any work has the discretion to make decisions about the manner in which that work is distributed.  This is in fact fundamental to copyright’s purpose.  If you write an autobiographical novel about a serious subject, for instance, not even your publisher may blithely repackage it with a steamy romance cover (unless you sign those rights away) because they think it will sell better.  But that’s basically what the third-party manufacturers want to do.  They want the federal government to compel MVPDs to deliver programming and data to them, for which they will not pay a license fee but will be allowed to distribute, package, and advertise against the works in any way they see fit.

The implications of that business model go well beyond the scope of mere gadget-making, clearly falling into the purview of copyright law.  Kevin Madigan on Mister Copyright summarizes the distinction between the device and the model thus:

“The difference with the current navigation device manufacturers is that they will receive copyrighted TV programs to which they’ll have unbridled liberty to repackage and control before sending them to the in-home navigation device. The third-party device manufacturers will not only be able to tamper with the channel placement designed to protect viewer experience and brand value, they will also be able to insert their own advertising into the delivery of the content, reducing pay-tv ad revenue and the value of the license agreements that copyright owners negotiate with pay-TV providers.”

That’s not what VCR’s (and now DVRs) do, and I’d be surprised if any court had much patience for a party relying heavily on Sony to support the FCC proposals. Additionally, as reported, the EFF recently took the bold step of suing the federal government on the grounds that Section 1201 of the DMCA is unconstitutional. Perhaps their assertion that the FCC proposal has “nothing to do with copyright” presumes that they have already won this argument because Register Pallante recognizes a “tension” between the FCC proposal and the 1201 anti-circumvention measures in the DMCA ….

“The Proposed Rule would inhibit the ability of MVPDs and content programmers to develop, improve, and customize technological solutions to protect their content in the digital marketplace.  It would do so in part by requiring MVPDs to give third-party actors access to copyrighted video content and associated data according to one or more security standards prescribed by an outside organization rather than through their preferred (and potentially more secure) protocols negotiated between copyright owners and the MVPDs. In addition, the Proposed Rule suggests that the FCC might allow third parties to self-certify their compliance with whatever security standards are adopted.  The Proposed Rule would thus undermine content creators’ ability to choose how best to protect their content in the marketplace, as Congress intended in enacting DMCA.”

Between Stoltz’s latest editorial and the recent suit over 1201, it seems the EFF is increasingly uninterested in working with copyright law and is focused on efforts either to abolish it or simply pretend it doesn’t exist.  This post is not meant to suggest that I can endorse every business practice of every MVPD, but the EFF’s assertion that these parties are “cloaking” anti-competitive practices in false claims about copyright is misleading.  Moreover, it should be abundantly clear by now that if the name Google is on the list of providers seeking a new regime from a federal agency, then customer choice and free-market competition are likely not at the forefront of that effort.

Posted in Copyright, Law & Policy | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Why is Fight For The Future Rocking Against the TPP?  

Rock the TPPI will admit it right now. I have not read the full text of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement.  And I don’t intend to.  I also do not have even encyclopedia-entry knowledge about all of the other 11 countries involved in the TPP and do not have more than a basic understanding of global trade.  Absent this information, the honest answer is that I have no earthly idea what the full scope of consequences might be of either passing or not passing the TPP.

What I have just said about myself applies to nearly the entire American public. And it very likely applies to the folks at Fight for the Future, who are now promoting a concert event called Rock Against the TPP.  Here’s their description of the largest international trade deal in history:

“…an anti-democratic deal between 12 countries that was negotiated in complete secrecy by government officials and hundreds of corporate lobbyists. If it becomes law, the TPP would be the largest deal of its kind in history, and it poses a grave threat to good-paying jobs, internet freedom, the environment, access to medicine, food safety, and the future of freedom of expression.”

I have written previously about the false claim that TPP can have an ill-effect on free speech and that the “secrecy” thing is blown out of proportion.  (As indicated above, the full text has been freely available since early in the year, but nobody is going to read it.)

The first criticism I have about FFTF’s declaration is that this organization is not functionally concerned with good paying jobs, the environment, access to medicine, or food safety.  Individuals within the group may personally care about these things and have certain related knowledge, but nobody who works there is an international policy expert in these areas; and addressing these issues is not part of the mission of the organization.  Fight for the Future is, in principle, a “digital rights” group—concerned with “internet freedom,” a concept that is itself a little vague for my tastes, but that’s another conversation.

“Act Now! Or Things Might Stay Very Much the Same!

That doesn’t exactly stir one to action, but it’s an honest distillation of “digital rights” groups’ complaints about the TPP with regard to “internet freedom” and free speech. This is because the part of the treaty they see as a threats are the IP provisions, which do not actually have any effect on the status of free speech online for the trading partners.

And even confined to its wheelhouse, Fight for the Future’s concern for “internet freedom” in the context of the TPP typically glosses over the complexity of interrelated issues, raising this one paradox I can’t help but repeat:  You cannot have internet freedom without global trade because you cannot have devices that connect you to the internet without global trade.  Ain’t that a bitch?

I mean I hate to be a buzzkill, but there’s a lot of environmental hazard and unsafe, unfair labor involved with producing the computers and smart phones and tablets FFTF is using to rally people to Rock Against the TPP.  So, the hard question is this:   Can we privileged Americans say with confidence that this trade deal only exacerbates these problems rather than makes progress toward improvements for workers and environmental policies in partner nations? I can’t.  Can you?  And, without this level of understanding, it seems cynically irresponsible to get people into a lather about their right of free speech—a right that is not threatened at all—while potentially denying a step forward for someone halfway around the world, who lives in pretty deplorable conditions.

Still, the economic and environmental concerns are not dismissible.  Here’s a quote cited by the organization Citizens Trade, which is linked to by FFTF:

CWA president Chris Shelton: “Even a cursory review demonstrates how this trade deal fails working families. It forces U.S. workers to compete with the 65-cent an hour wages of Vietnamese workers and the slave labor employed in Malaysia. It allows multinational corporations to challenge environmental, financial, consumer and other regulations through international tribunals – and outside the court systems of member countries. It pays lip service to addressing real concerns about currency manipulation that costs American jobs and leads to more jobs being sent offshore. And it allies the U.S. with countries that abuse their own citizens, including Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia.”

I don’t want to support any of that.  Of course there’s a lot in that statement begging further research, but on the last point, for example, about allying with countries that abuse their citizens, here’s some sample text from the TPP:

Article 19.3: Labour Rights

1. Each Party shall adopt and maintain in its statutes and regulations, and practices thereunder, the following rights as stated in the ILO Declaration 3, 4:

(a) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;

(b) the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour;

(c) the effective abolition of child labour and, for the purposes of this Agreement, a prohibition on the worst forms of child labour; and

(d) the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.

So, if ratifying this trade agreement could reverse precedent disenfranchisement of minority workers in Malaysia, I don’t necessarily want to rock against it either.  So, which do we believe?  More to the point, how can we know without thoroughly digging into the laws, economics, and conditions of people in Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, etc.?  Fight for the Future seems to trade on a very American-centric notion that an “open internet” is all that’s needed for the rest of the world to become more democratic and socially just.

The labor-related critics cited by Citizens Trade—Steelworkers, Machinists, CWA, and the Teamsters—have an immediate, American-jobs interest in fighting against free trade. This is a valid concern to say the least, but it also makes these parties rather strange bedfellows with an organization like Fight for the Future, whose anti-copyright agenda is not exactly supportive of domestic labor. Teamsters, for example, do a lot of work for the motion picture industry. And FFTF’s criticism, based solely on the premise that copyright enforcement is in conflict with free speech, is both unsound and wants to ignore the adverse effects of criminal-enterprise infringement of works like motion pictures.

Although certain pundits like to point to the total revenues of the American film industry as “proof” that large-scale piracy does no harm, the evidence is clear that investment in middle-market production is wavering as a direct result of piracy’s eroding margins for these products.*  This can lead to fewer total projects being made with full budgets and union crews, which can lead to fewer teamsters being hired to support film and television production.  Likewise, many members of the CWA have a direct interest in protecting copyrights around the world, so how is FFTF’s anti-IP agenda not a threat to those jobs in addition to any concerns regarding other aspects of the TPP?

In the end, I think it’s very tough to say whether or not we could, or would even want to, put the global-trade genie back in the bottle.  What is not hard to say is that Fight for the Future’s gasping over the prospect that TPP would unify copyright terms among the partner nations and promote measures for enforcement is a naive, anti-progressive stance that ignores the complexities of the real world. Former Canadian diplomat Hugh Stephens describes a hypothetical—though not impossible—scenario in which Taiwan is invited to join the TPP, which would diversify its economic relationships, making it less dependent on China.  Meanwhile, what do “digital rights” activists think is more likely to motivate a nation like China to migrate toward a more open society with an uncensored internet—rock concerts or global trade?

With regard to American jobs, there’s no getting past the fact that certain sectors have suffered from free trade deals. In response, I’m with those who say there are jobs to be had by investing in domestic infrastructure; it’s long overdue for renovation and cannot be outsourced.  Maybe somebody should rock that.


*Although there is new investment in middle-market works predicated on Netflix-like models, it is too soon to know how this market will evolve to remain sustainable.  It is also equally vulnerable to piracy.

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