In a document Public Knowledge has the conceit to call a “report,” the organization now proposes that the US Copyright Office is trapped in a state of “regulatory capture.” Usually, this is a term reserved for a condition that arises when the people who work at a regulatory agency become either culturally or economically too close to the industry they’re supposed to be minding. The most obvious and acute example we’ve seen is when employees working at the SEC have been offered lucrative gigs on Wall Street and this kind of big-money careerism drives their regulatory decision-making. (See The Big Short for a brief dramatization of the phenomenon. And don’t pirate it!)
The Copyright Office, of course, is not a regulatory body like the SEC, though it does certainly play a leading role in setting copyright policy for the nation through its analysis and recommendations on a variety of topics. The USCO does not decide legal cases or pass copyright laws. Part of the Office’s mandated role is to consider a broad range of copyright-related issues, while accounting for the views of a diverse group of stakeholders, and to make recommendations that uphold the full scope of copyright’s purpose, including exceptions and limits to legal protections for rights holders.
Given the mission of the Copyright Office, the institution tends to attract employees who (brace yourself) think copyright is a good thing and who are predisposed to emphasize copyright’s benefits to the nation. That’s going to irk anyone who views copyright as a negative–like the folks at PK–but it certainly does not mean the office is “captured” by large, corporate rights holders. PK’s accusation is one that might play well in a climate of general distrust of all government agencies, but the evidence they present in order to prove that the Copyright Office is amok with industry sycophants is not only thin and circumstantial, but is also remarkably hypocritical if one takes a peek under the rug in the Public Knowledge foyer.
One might notice, for instance, that Public Knowledge co-founder Gigi Sohn is now lead counsel at the FCC, which has been pushing a “set-top-box” proposal that the Copyright Office has critiqued within the ambit of its statutory role. What PK doesn’t like, I suppose, is that the CO disagrees with their assertion that the FCC proposal “has nothing to do with copyright,” so now PK has moved into full-court press to discredit the whole Office as functionally biased. One might think that with Gigi Sohn as the common denominator in this story—and Google as the clear winner if the FCC proposal were to pass—PK would tread a bit more lightly with accusations of cultural “capture,” but not so much. When you’re shielded by the appearance of representing “public interest,” you can get away with almost anything.
The Revolving Door Accusation
To support its premise, Public Knowledge, with McCarthy-like righteousness, presents a list—a table of thirteen former or current employees of the Copyright Office who either have worked for private-sector, rights-holding organizations prior to working at the Office or who are now working for these private entities after their terms at the Office. That thirteen copyright attorneys over a 22-year period might be employed in some capacity for copyright owners is a rather unremarkable observation, but PK seems to think it’s a smoking gun. Of course, they had to stop the list at thirteen because the fourteenth former CO employee might have been leading copyright attorney William Patry, who now serves as senior counsel to Google (I guess they didn’t want to mention that one). Or, as one of the named thirteen, Steven Tepp, observes in his response, PK also didn’t bother to list the many other Copyright Office employees who, “went to Internet and tech companies, the Smithsonian, the FCC, and other places that no one would mistake for copyright industries.” One might almost get the idea that experienced copyright attorneys pursue various career paths or something.
To be utterly pedantic about it, is PK actually suggesting with its little chart—that the IP law firm, where Marybeth Peters took an advisory role after leaving the Copyright Office in 2010, only gave her that job after they confirmed that 16 years’ worth of her copyright analysis as Register consistently favored “industry”? And which industry would that have been exactly? The D.C. firm named by PK provides counsel on copyright, patents, and trademarks; and you can bet your boots they’ve had a few technology clients, and probably quite a number of other clients outside the unholy trinity of music, motion pictures, and publishing.
PK also notes that Peters now serves (part-time) on the board of Copyright Clearance Center, a private organization that states, “Our vision is to create global licensing and content solutions that make copyright work.” That almost sounds like 21st-century innovation to streamline digital content licensing, which is exactly what CCC does. So how is this career move by Peters evidence of “capture” at the Copyright Office? It’s not. PK is assuming nobody will look at the details and will accept their premise at face value.
Now, I could point out that a “revolving door” table comprising a few hundred key federal employees would list in its right-hand column not a variety of private-sector roles, but just one company called Google. And that in itself is not a smoking gun, per se. Google produces a lot of highly-skilled technologists, who perhaps should work in the public sector. But if we’re talking cultural “capture”, let’s be real.
Views on Copyright
As consequential evidence of the CO’s “capture,” Public Knowledge accuses the office of contorting copyright law; serving the interests of rights holders; advocating for expanded copyright; sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong; ignoring stakeholders; and (bizarrely) being generally ignored or rejected by the courts, Congress, and other agencies. Holy smear campaigns, Batman, that’s quite a laundry list of accusations. But then, it’s SOP for Public Knowledge to present the part of the story that supports their accusations while ignoring the rest of the facts.
For instance, it is true that the courts have at times disagreed with the recommendations or interpretations of the Copyright Office. But quite often, they haven’t. Welcome to the law. Debate on principle or interpretation is part of the process and always has been. So, unless Public Knowledge wants to roll up its sleeves and present real data—not cherry-picked anecdotes—that show clear evidence of consistent bias in the USCO and conflict with the courts, then what they really appear to be saying is, “The CO disagrees with us, so it must be corrupt.”
One could cite numerous examples as to why this accusation is unfounded, but a rather compelling one would be the Copyright Office’s latest round of Rule Making on exceptions to Section 1201 of the DMCA. As I reported in this post, the recommendations from the CO reveals that the Office generally favored the parties petitioning for exceptions rather than the rights holders arguing against those exceptions. According to Tepp’s rebuttal cited above, the 22 exceptions allowing circumvention of TPM is an unprecedented number. Meanwhile, Section 1201 of the DMCA is a fairly contentious issue among copyright watchers and direct stakeholders, but it’s a subject that remains arcane for most citizens. As such, it seems like a perfect opportunity for the Copyright Office to exercise the “maximalism” of which it now stands accused, yet the record reveals exactly the opposite trend.
Why is Being Anti-Copyright the Only Non-Corrupted View?
Public knowledge states the following as a prelude to its accusations that the Copyright Office is on a perpetual copyright contact-high from partying with rights holders:
“Beyond the revolving door, frequent gatherings—both formal and informal—of Office staff and industry representatives provide further evidence of cultural capture. For example, the Copyright Office organizes a series of ‘Copyright Matters’ lectures, both ‘to provide education and training’ to Copyright staff and to serve as a larger ‘community forum.’”
Remember when Obama, as a brand new president, was going to speak to kids at the start of the school year, and the Republicans went all ape-shit and declared, “He’s going to indoctrinate the kids!!” That was a pretty crazy-pants moment for America, right? Same thing here. Yes, let’s be clear once again: the Copyright Office generally believes copyright is good for the country. You will also find employees of the EPA who dig clean air, several members of HUD opposed to homelessness, and at least a few folks at the DOD who err on the side of security and are prone to wearing uniforms.
Maybe Public Knowledge thinks the Copyright Office is culturally corrupted because so many of PK’s own copyright positions are just kinda bananas to people who know the law and who don’t view copyright as a pernicious regime. Y’know on account of the fact that copyright has been pretty good for us. For the first 50 years, the U.S. hardly had much of a culture industry at all, but by the mid 20th century, it was the world’s leading producer of creative works, and that production created a lot of really good jobs—way more jobs than all of the internet giants combined have produced or are likely to produce.
Even beyond copyright, though, Public Knowledge’s “report” compiled of innuendo and half-truths reflects a core dysfunction, in my view, with all contemporary politics. It almost doesn’t matter what the issue is, the theme across the political spectrum is one of tearing down institutions and systems rather than any engagement in a good-faith debate that might actually improve a system. This is understandable because the game is rigged. We have allowed corporate values to write public policy in far too many areas, and people are being hurt as a result. But PK is not critiquing—let alone debating with—the Copyright Office, it’s gunning for its very existence and gunning for copyright law itself. If anyone believes that agenda is in the public interest, they are sorely mistaken.