Clinton equivocates so Masnick obfuscates.

Last week, Hillary Clinton released her Initiative on Technology and Innovation, brief, which reads a bit like a missive from the Internet Association and does very little to clarify her own views—possibly because she doesn’t have any—on the role of copyright in the digital age.  My general criticism of the whole brief is that it seems to view “technology” as an end rather than a means—still talking about access as its own reward, even in a time when Clinton’s opponent is as much proof as we should ever need that access alone does not necessarily foster a new enlightenment.

That Clinton’s statements are vague is the one criticism I share with Mike Masnick at Techdirt. Of course, what I hear in her rhetoric is that she’s been tippling at the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid, while Masnick seems to feel she hasn’t had quite enough. And that’s fine. We have divergent agendas.  But the substance of Masnick’s rebuttal on the subject of incentives does not accurately reflect the debate from either side, in my opinion.

Clinton’s statement contains the following:

The federal government should modernize the copyright system through reforms that facilitate access to out-of-print and orphan works, while protecting the innovation incentives in the system.  It should also promote open-licensing arrangements for copyrighted material supported by federal grant funding.

And Masnick rebuts …

What are the “innovation incentives in the system” right now? Well, on that, people totally disagree. Some people think that fair use, user rights and DMCA safe harbors are the innovation incentives in the system. Others, of course, argue it’s long copyright terms and insane statutory damages. These two groups disagree and the Clinton platform offers no further enlightenment. 

I’m sure his statement resonates inside Techdirt’s echo chamber, but portraying “long copyright terms and insane statutory damages” as core incentives for rights holders specifically oversimplifies both of these topics and it generally misrepresents creators and their motivations.

“…long copyright terms…”

Yes, the copyright term is part of the incentive rationale, but the actual duration of terms is influenced by various interrelated and dynamic factors—both philosophical and utilitarian—that consider market conditions and, yes, a discussion as to what seems appropriate to grant an author, which has generally extended to two generations of his/her heirs.  Presumably, there is an ideal threshold for terms—too short and incentive may be diminished for various types of works; too long and copyright’s purpose to promote progress may be defeated—but the sweet spot can only be theorized based on a holistic view of the contemporary, global market for the range of protectable works. To boil all that down to say that rights holders think long terms provide an incentive to create and distribute is no more nuanced than Hillary Clinton’s equivocal statement on the matter.

“…insane statutory damages…”

While it’s true that there is no reason to rely on a law that cannot be enforced, Masnick’s reference to “insane statutory damages” is stretching this tautology a bit thin in order suggest that rights holders view the prospect of litigation awards as an incentive to create in the first place. Statutory damages are set, in part, because the burden for a plaintiff to prove “actual damages” is quite steep. And because federal litigation is very expensive, hiring an attorney to represent a claim in which statutory damages may not be awarded can be extremely difficult for many rights holders.

Masnick also glosses over several details with regard to awards, including the fact that a lot of cases settle without awards anywhere near the statutory limits; that many copyright advocates currently support the creation of a copyright small claims court; and that statutory damages only apply in cases in which the works are registered with the Copyright Office. This last point is particularly relevant since Masnick seems eager to end the automatic copyright formalized in the 1976 act when he cites Clinton’s reference to “orphan works” and writes, “the only real solution to the orphan works problem is to go back to … requiring registration to get a copyright.”  But as a practical reality, when it comes to litigation and statutory damages, copyright registration is required, so the real pen-and-paper debate is not exactly defined by the lines Masnick is drawing with his oversized crayons.

“…fair use…”

As for the opposing view on incentives, it’s odd for Masnick to invoke fair use and DMCA safe harbors* when neither subject means anything without an enforceable regime of copyright in the first place. For example, to call fair use an incentive is preposterous absent an enforceably copyrighted work that is being used, so it cannot accurately sit on the opposite side of an imaginary line supposedly contrasting different incentives.  Fair use is a possible consideration, but most of the time, most creators don’t even think about copyright when they begin to author their own expressions.  This is because the idea/expression distinction in the law already has them well covered nearly all of the time—a principle codified into federal copyright law 136 years ago relative to the decade since Web 2.0 supposedly stirred up all this fair use controversy for all manner of creators.

“…DMCA safe harbors…”

I assume Masnick is not saying that the DMCA liability shield (safe harbor) for OSPs directly incentivizes creators.  Presumably, he’s saying that the safe harbor is necessary to provide a foundation to incentivize the blogger or YouTuber to create new works via these platforms, but that’s a pretty big logical leap.  As with the fair use fallacy, this view assumes that infringement is integral to expression and the incentive to express.  Additionally, the safe harbor shield doesn’t technically protect the user/creator at all. As noted in my recent post about Lewis Bond, this conflating of the OSP’s interests with the user’s interests is part of what I think gets some creators into legal hot water.  While, it is true that platforms like YouTube foster new forms of expression (e.g. mashups) that ask new questions about copyright’s boundaries and exceptions, it is misleading to highlight safe harbor as an incentive for those who make these expressions, especially when the liability shield clearly provides an incentive for OSPs to turn a blind eye to obvious infringements.

In my experience the most consistent incentive I’ve encountered among creators I’ve known, or known about, is that copyright inextricably links a given expression to its author.  This is not only a significant motivation for creators—one that often transcends money—but it is also a distinction that benefits society most by preserving the relevance of context—a value Web 2.0 seems well-suited to destroy with alarming frequency.

As for candidate Clinton, Masnick and I clearly want to hear different specifics from her as she progresses toward the White House (I hope).  Based on the choice of rhetoric in the brief, though, I do suspect the internet industry had a hand in its writing.  In particular, the arbitrary reference to “orphan works” is bizarre—as though this arcane bit of copyright flotsam represents some untapped cultural or economic potential for America.  Overall, between the brief and Masnick’s comments, it seems we’re in stuck in the meta-debate about what the debate is about.


*I’m ignoring user rights because it’s too vague and too broad.

© 2016, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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