Copyright Freak!

There’s a difference between debate and marketing.

Yesterday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation unveiled an online PR blitz called Copyright Week. The campaign’s launchpad is a webpage that asks visitors to consider and support “six principles,” one per day, over six days which happen to lead up to Silicon Valley’s very own independence day, January 18th, 2012, a.k.a. “SOPA Blackout Day.”  The roll-out of this campaign also coincides with today’s new round of hearings in the House Judiciary Committee in the ongoing process to review and potentially revise copyright in the United States.  Specifically, today’s hearing was focused on the scope of copyright, and while the EFF is determined that this debate should happen in the emotional realm of PR and marketing, even a brief viewing of the testimony on Capitol Hill should demonstrate that copyright reform is considerably more complex than the blunt, faux populist scaremongering we see in the EFF campaign.

For example, Carl Malamud, founder of Public.Resource.Org offered testimony that, on the surface sounds like something we can all support. The text of written law must be accessible in a free and open society and, therefore, sites like his, which provide easy access to this information should not ever run afoul of copyright protections.  Makes sense to me.  The law shouldn’t be copyrighted; it belongs to all of us.  But in questioning Malamud, Representative Collins of Georgia asserted that the law is publicly available, but that certain annotations, for instance, remain intellectual property. Eyes rolling the back of your head yet?  I can’t blame you because unless you’re an IP attorney or just like to follow copyright issues like some people follow sports stats, you’re probably going to tune out about here and find any number of more fun diversions.  And that’s cool, but this is what the real debate will probably look like; it’s complex and nuanced and in some cases, kinda dull.

By contrast, the EFF would prefer to manipulate you with a portrayal of an epic battle for the soul of the American dream itself. They would have you believe that copyright is, in our time, a golem destined to destroy the future of all technological advancement and the sacred right to self expression.  Never mind the fact that most copyright holders are the manifestation of self-expression, the Copyright Week campaign would rather distract you with a barrage of references to the international trade negotiation known as the TPP and scary words like secret.  And maybe there are hazards in the TPP of which we should be aware, but I’ll bet it isn’t the copyright provisions. And I say this because the EFF will overreach when its spokespeople say things like “copyright has no business in a trade agreement.”  Why?  If one of our most valuable products is intellectual property, why doesn’t the subject even belong at the negotiating table? Surely, when copyright industries can boast a trillion dollars in GDP, the issue must have a few more shades of gray than that.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation boasts the motto “Protecting your rights in the digital age,” but you might notice that this does not necessarily include protecting your rights from the digital age.  When Google or Facebook revise their Terms of Use policies to encroach ever further on your privacy or claim the right to use your kid’s birthday pictures in a paid ad, the EFF is silent. They are silent on the subject of cyber-mobs, which are an acute and clear infringement on their victims’ right to free expression and have even resulted in physical attacks.  They are silent on Google’s monetizing just about any form of human depravity from sex-slave trafficking to illegal narcotics to abusive and deadly depictions of atrocities on YouTube.  And for all its efforts to leverage our distrust of the American government to mask the agenda of Silicon Valley, the EFF is silent about the deepening influence of these government contractors who are the tech companies they serve.

So, by all means, if you care about the future of copyright from any perspective, I encourage you to follow the nuts and bolts of review in the coming year (if you can possibly stay awake through it all).  But failing that, at least don’t freak out because an organization like the EFF says  you should.  After all, it isn’t the Hollywood studios who can scan your emails, manipulate the flow of information on the Web, or might one day help develop an autonomous weapon. Pour a glass of wine, take a breath, and ask yourself a very simple question:  If you had to guess who has the greatest capacity to adversely affect your civil rights today, would it be the copyright holders or the data collectors? Cheers.

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