Copyright in Motion As Midterms Approach

While most attention will be understandably focused this week on the Senate Judiciary and the confirmation (or not) of Brett Kavanaugh, there is actually quite a bit of copyright law activity of note as the midterms approach.

Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act Hearings Scheduled

Originally introduced in the House in March 2017 as H.R. 1695, this bill proposes a reorganization, favored by many copyright experts, to make the Copyright Office independent of the Library of Congress and to make the Register of Copyrights an executive appointee rather than a hired member of the Librarian’s staff. The bill passed the House in May of 2017 with a vote of 378-48 but then stalled in the Senate Rules Committee (as S. 1010). On Wednesday of this week, that committee will hold hearings on this legislation.

As described in a few posts, the formation of the USCO within the LOC dates back to 1897, when Congress could hardly have envisioned the copyright industries as we know them today; and both scholars and legal professionals have long viewed the current organizational structure as antiquated. Despite complaints by the usual assortment of critics—and they are likely to resurface after this week’s hearing—the Librarian and Register have always performed different functions predicated on very different areas of expertise; and the intervening 120 years has only increased the divergent roles of the two departments. This is a change long in development and long overdue.

CASE Act Hearings Scheduled

Following that hearing, on Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the proposed CASE Act, which would create a small claim copyright tribunal within the Copyright Office. The purpose of CASE is to provide a remedy for copyright disputes that do not easily justify the cost of federal litigation. For instance, the proposal is backed very strongly by professional photographers, whose works are infringed with a high rate of frequency online, even by business entities exploiting images for commercial purposes.

True to form, the copyright critics have predicted a litany of negative consequences that are simply not possible within the scope of the proposed statute. For instance, as a purely voluntary option, the new tribunal cannot become the “clearing house for copyright trolls” critics like EFF have alleged. Moreover, the USCO board will be experts in copyright law only, which is not true of federal judges, and there is no reason to believe this remedy would not prove to be as beneficial to defendants as to claimants. Still, the committee will be reviewing the latest version of the bill, which represents ongoing discussion among proponents and good-faith critics of the legislation.

The VidAngel Bill?

In August of 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals shot down all the legal defenses, previously shot down by a California District Court, as presented by the movie filtering service called VidAngel. For a detailed background, see posts here and here; but briefly, VidAngel was sued by major motion picture studios for copyright infringement based on the manner in which the company was providing streamed access to movies while filtering out segments containing language, sexual content, or other material that VidAngel’s subscribers find objectionable, primarily on religious grounds.

Among its failed defenses, VidAngel asserted an unsound interpretation of the Family Movie Act (2005), which permits private use of consumer devices to make brief segments of motion pictures imperceptible during home viewing. Having lost its court fight with that statute (along with key statutes in the copyright law), VidAngel has apparently been lobbying Members of Congress, mainly its CEO’s hometown Utah Representatives, to propose an amendment (H.R. 6816) to the Family Movie Act that would theoretically enable VidAngel to perform, as a VOD service, the same task consumers are allowed to perform by means of devices at home.

Setting aside my own opinion of any consumer’s desire to edit out segments of movies on moral grounds, the legislators in this case may believe they’re simply updating the FMA for the digital-streaming market, but if so, they have failed to consider the staggeringly disruptive implications their bill would have on copyright law, contracts, and licensing agreements.  As a simple example, amending the FMA in this manner does not obligate the studios to license their films to VidAngel, which had been making public performances of these works without licenses.  And it gets more complicated from there — all for the sake of one company to profit from an activity that other companies have enabled consumers to conduct legally for 13 years.  I think this bill is likely a dead-issue, and with it VidAngel; but it will be something to watch if that’s not the case.

Doctorow & EFF Declare Perpetual War On DRM

On a slightly related note (because VidAngel violated Section 1201 of the DMCA), Cory Doctorow, in his role as EFFer, urged the organization’s followers to keep Sisyphean-like faith in “Our Apollo 1201 Project [which] aims to kill all the DRM in the world inside of a decade ….” Digital Rights Management tools, designed to protect copyrighted software from unlicensed access, copying, or tampering, has been portrayed by critics like Doctorow as a means to entrench corporate control of various markets more than as a means to protect authors of creative works.

It’s not that DRM is without such challenges or does not require constant reassessment, but Doctorow and company generally lack all deference to nuance, or integrity, when discussing the issues. For instance, they make no mention of the fact that, without DRM, many of the convenient ways in which we access works in the digital age (e.g. eReaders) would not exist. Moreover, as elaborated upon in this post, the EFF’s assault on the constitutionality of Section 1201 of the DMCA—the section prohibiting circumvention of DRM—conveys more ideological hatred than an honest portrayal of, for instance, the USCO’s position on exceptions to 1201’s prohibitions.

As noted in that post, rather than engage in the USCO’s call for reasonable changes to permanent exceptions etc., the EFF is instead hell-bent on the (dare I say perpetual-funding opportunity?) more dubious mission to eradicate the law. In this regard, it is notable that Doctorow employs the metaphor of ants steadily, if blindly, making slow progress up a hill. The presumptive “ants” (see Donors) Doctorow is addressing might want to look up the word Myrmidon.

© 2018, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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