Copyright Principles & Consensus?

Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing meant to lay some of the groundwork for overhauling copyright law in the United States.  The title of the hearing is “A Case Study in Consensus Building: The Copyright Principles Project,” suggesting that the “project” is about establishing premises and ground rules for how the debate might be framed going forward.  I suppose because the word consensus is also part of the title, several lawmakers and the witnesses called to testify repeated the rhetorical question as to why debate about copyright has become so contentious.  For authors and creators who actually use copyrights to forge professional careers and build businesses, this feint at decorum will elicit a justifiable sneer because it’s kinda like saying, “All someone did was spit in your eye, and I don’t know why we can’t now have a civil discussion about the principles of expectoration.”  Of course, there weren’t any authors or creators present at this hearing, and that in itself has been cause for concern.

For the lawmakers who asked the question in earnest as to why the debate on this issue can be so vituperative, they need only have paid close attention to one subtle but significant choice of words in the testimony of Professor Pamela Samuelson when she was asked about the matter of online piracy.  Samuelson, the lead author of The Copyright Principles Project, stated that individual artists are at “some disadvantage” in protecting their rights on the internet.  Some disadvantage?  Like a lone Boy Scout would be at some disadvantage fending off a mechanized armored division.  The thing about consensus is that you can’t ask for it if you’re going to propose a foundation of “principles” predicated on lies and half truths.  The correct answer to the question asked of Professor Samuels is “Individual artists don’t stand a chance of protecting their rights on the internet; they might as well shout their grievances into the next passing hurricane for all the remedies and resources at their disposal.”  Had the good professor said something remotely descriptive of the true nature of this problem, then perhaps we can have a big ol’ debate as to whether or not anybody cares, as I suspect many lawmakers and fellow citizens do.  Keep in mind that the scale of the problem as I describe is not even disputed by some of copyright’s most vocal antagonists and piracy’s most vocal supporters.  “You can’t stop it, don’t try” was a familiar mantra during the dustup over SOPA, and with just one BitTorrent site claiming three billion page views a month, they may be right. But let’s not equivocate as to what creators are up against as we presume to “build consensus.”

This past March, The Wall Street Journal published a profile of the anti-piracy unit within NBCUniversal, and even this group of dedicated professionals funded by a major corporation can hardly keep up with the rate or volume of unlicensed distribution of their properties.  By contrast, independent filmmaker Ellen Seidler has documented in great detail exactly what the experience is like trying to protect just one small, niche film from being hijacked and monetized by criminals and Google.  Lawmakers should be aware of the facts and aware of the obfuscation, however subtle, being employed by academics like Professor Samuelson.  At the same time, the general public should be aware that not every idea that comes out of an academic’s head makes it automatically a good idea no matter how prestigious their company.  In academia, one doesn’t make a name for oneself by defending the status quo, but rather by bucking a system, even going so far as to identify “problems” within a system that may not be problems at all. Academic study is critical to a progressive enriched society, but we should never underestimate the motivating factors of ego and self-promotion and grant acquisition when reading between the lines.

On the subject of what is supposedly wrong with copyright, the other theme of the day in addition to why we can’t just all get along, was a substantial amount of griping and joking about complexity.  Copyright law is too complex, say the witnesses and a few legislators, and I have no doubt that it is complex and maybe too complex in certain areas that require streamlining.  But as a general rule, is copyright law more complexly burdensome than any number of other laws?  Isn’t that why people study the law in challenging post-graduate schools and then have to pass a really hard test before they’re allowed to practice the discipline professionally?  More to the point, though, if technology has made the world of consuming content more complex, is it disingenuous to suggest that revising copyright to balance the rights of authors and consumers in the digital age would not produce an even more complex set of statutes?  And if more complexity is required, so be it; but that’s not what’s being proposed.  What’s being proposed, at least by Samuelson & Co., is to simplify the legal system, which sounds good in theory; but it seems to me that the only way to “simplify” a law in an ever more complex world is to eliminate key functions of that law.  And since copyright’s key functions are the protection of authors and inventors, this begins to echo David Lowery’s distillation of the internet industry agenda:  “All your data are belong to us.”  No question that’s very simple.

So, again, the premise issuing from the chamber and reverberating on Twitter is predicated on smart sounding academic theory (i.e. simplifying a law) entirely untethered to a real or pragmatic world view.  The premise being proposed is that copyright ought to be easier to understand for any layman because it is now “everyone’s issue” because in the digital age, “we are all authors.”  This was the oft-repeated theme of live tweets by Gigi Sohn, President and co-founder of Public Knowledge and echoed at least once by Mike Masnick of Techdirt.  Of course, the truth is that just because the internet fosters a lot of production of stuff, that doesn’t make us all authors anymore than corporate softball teams make us all ballplayers.  On my best day, I don’t write as well as many authors I admire deeply; and on my worst day, I’m better than many a citizen whose claim to authorship is the possession of a smart phone and a pair of thumbs. So one can sit in tech-industry funded ivory towers and ruminate over the proposition that a novel by Steven Millhauser is of equal value to the random bits of personal detritus shared on social media, but if we consider for a moment that copyright ought to be amended based on this childishly whimsical proposition, then we might as well start burning the libraries this afternoon.

Speaking of Mr. Masnick, he live tweeted that his blood pressure was being elevated by the hearing because, as usual, “Congress doesn’t get the internet.” This is a familiar cheap shot available to anybody with an axe to grind.  One can start the sentence “Congress doesn’t get _______” and find any citizen or group to fill in that blank with their personal gripe du jour.  Of course it was very clear that certain lawmakers, including Hon. Collins, Hon. Chu, and Hon. Goodlatte, that Congress is not at all willing to automatically swallow unsubstantiated, academic theory as the sole basis for rewriting a legal system that has made the United States a leader in the professional production of creative and cultural works for more than two centuries. And had there been any creators asked to testify, they would have clearly demonstrated that academics like Professor Samuelson don’t know the first thing about the production of creative works or the nature of protecting them.  Somehow, all this translates into the failure of congress to understand the internet, but maybe it’s not that so much as some of the ideas being presented are kinda dumb and transparently self-serving.

On that last point, as more hearings like this one are convened in what will surely be a years-long process toward some kind of reform, we should not forget who the monied interests are that have the most to gain from weaker copyright laws.  The premise most often asserted in the name of “consensus” is that we cannot allow supposedly outdated legal systems to stand in the way of innovations that benefit society.  Again, this is a perfectly reasonable sounding position, but there should not be a lawmaker of any party who does not include economic growth in his or her definition of innovation, and this recent article in The Daily Beast should serve as a caution in light of the fact that intellectual property supported jobs still number in the tens of millions.  As the article’s author Joel Kotkin points out, “Today’s tech moguls don’t employ many Americans, they don’t pay very much in taxes or tend to share much of their wealth, and they live in a separate world that few of us could ever hope to enter. But while spending millions bending the political process to pad their bottom lines, they’ve remained far more popular than past plutocrats, with 72 percent of Americans expressing positive feelings for the industry, compared to 30 percent for banking and 20 percent for oil and gas.”

Copyright may be a little hard to understand, and some members of congress might not “get” the internet, but it doesn’t take a law degree or expertise in code writing to know what a contemporary Robber Baron looks like, does it?

David Newhoff
David is an author, communications professional, and copyright advocate. After more than 20 years providing creative services and consulting in corporate communications, he shifted his attention to law and policy, beginning with advocacy of copyright and the value of creative professionals to America’s economy, core principles, and culture.

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