Lighten up, Derek Khanna
A legal cub named Derek Khanna, rather than finishing his law degree and taking the bar exam, has been steadily transforming himself into something of an anti-copyright celebrity purporting to represent a conservative perspective. And yesterday, he offered this inscrutable editorial, which appeared on Business Insider* among other places. Ostensibly, the article is a criticism of copyright terms (i.e. the length of copyright), and there is certainly nothing wrong with having that discussion. In fact, in the two plus years since I’ve personally been involved with these issues, I’ve met several strong proponents of copyrights who would be open to discussing the pros and cons of shorter terms; but it must be something about their 20-30 years worth of professional IP experience that makes them sound just a little less, I don’t know, hysterical than Derek Khanna.
Titled “The Conservative Case for Taking on the Copyright Lobby,” one might think that the word case coming from a Fellow at Yale would involve some sort of logical construct written with the kind of dispassion legal scholars often exhibit, given their experience balancing complex and competing interests. Not so much. Instead, Mr. Khanna offers a sort of screamo variation on the anachronistic theme that Hollywood lobbyists are robbing the future economic and creative capacity out from under the next generation while simultaneously committing treason against the orthodoxy of America’s Framers. All of this is achieved, of course, by the “content lobby” sequestering creative works in the grip of terminal copyrights.
While Disney’s extended hold on its seminal cartoon Steamboat Willie certainly makes an interesting case for discussion, to read Khanna’s article, one might get the idea that creative work has receded thanks to Mickey and the 1976 Copyright Act rather than expanded. All the novels and plays and screenplays unwritten! All those songs unperformed! The films we’ve never seen! And the computer games not produced! All because of that damn mouse! Seriously? Even with terms as long as they are, I have yet to meet a single artist, great or small, who gives existing, protected works anything more than a passing thought when he or she begins to create something new. So, Derek should lighten up because he’s not only not a lawyer yet, he’s really very much not an artist. I quote:
The costs of one of the greatest thefts in American history by these special interests hinders learning, destroys our cultural legacy, hurts innovation and the public, but, most important, it impedes filmmakers, artists, deejays, and other content creators who need to be able to build upon the work of others to create new content — as we have done for centuries.
What do you mean we, kid? And where have you been for the last 20 years? Oh, right, growing up.
Certainly, Khanna is correct that the social purpose of copyright is to promote new works in the arts and sciences; and if the application of the law exceeds or betrays this purpose by preventing people from building upon the works of others, then reform is in order. Yet, despite whatever research opportunities his fellowship at Yale affords, Kahnna insists on trotting out some of the most overused, amateur complaints about copyrights — Steamboat Willie, corporate ownership of the song “Happy Birthday,” and some ill-advised things former MPAA head Jack Valenti said 32 years ago — rather than demonstrate how current copyright terms are having any tangible, negative effect on the creation of new works. This is because there are no solid data to support this accusation on any scale that can be considered problematic. To the contrary, copyright continues to serve as a basis for fair trade among authors of works that enables multiple parties to benefit creatively and financially; and it also codifies the principle of fair use in the U.S., which happens to have the most liberal interpretation of that concept among countries that maintain copyright laws.
It is interesting, though, that Derek claims to be making a “conservative case” with this article. In fact, the absence of a case by any definition of traditional argument reveals the piece for the emotional, buzzword vehicle that it is. And to this end, the only apparently conservative position taken by Khanna (and it’s not his idea, by the way) in this editorial is a lightly veiled nod to “strict constitutionalism” with quotes like this one:
The steep costs to perpetual extension of copyright have been long known and are well documented. This is why the British copyright statute, the Statute of Anne, limited copyright duration to 14 years; why 12 of the original 13 colonies had similar copyright durations in their own statutes; why the Constitution includes the phrase “limited times”; and why the founders limited copyright to 14 years.
Of course, it’s rational to assume that the Framers anticipated the downsides of perpetual copyright, but the term of 14 years is as arbitrary and irrelevant to contemporary America as whatever it is Sarah Palin keeps babbling about muskets and militias. When the U.S. extended terms in 1998, it was playing catch-up as one of the last countries to adopt the same terms other copyright-supporting countries already had in place. What that means is that the U.S., as one of the largest exporters of entertainment and information media in the world, was literally leaving money on the table relative to its trade partners; and it’s difficult to imagine a conservative advocating a position that would support losing revenue in that manner. One does not make a sound case for thoughtful reform simply by repeating incendiary and obsolete complaints or by bowling a googly like this one:
To their credit, in moments of candor, content-industry lobbyists at least admit their goal is to repeal the copyright clause from the Constitution.
I got nothin’. I’ve read it several times and cannot figure out why Khanna claims content owners would want to repeal the copyright clause unless he means they would seek to repeal only the phrase “for a limited time.” Either way, it’s pure, careless invention to suggest this notion lurks anywhere in the minds of serious copyright professionals. The clause itself is older than the Bill of Rights. And no matter what the subject, every time someone with a political axe to grind claims to know the intent of the Framers, it’s hard not to see how such “wisdom” in the wrong hands results in events like the armed standoff now taking place in Nevada. To quote Terry Hart, who writes the blog Copyhype:
The fact is, the Founders spent remarkably little time on copyright. Joel Barlow told the Continental Congress we should have a copyright act and, by the way, you should just copy England’s law. The copyright clause was proposed just a few days before the Constitution was finalized, and adopted without debate. Compare that to the process going into the 1976 Act, which actually comprises 20 years worth of study by the Copyright Office, roundtables, discussion drafts, public comment, and congressional hearings.
And in case Derek Khanna and the editors who think he’s worth listening to hadn’t noticed, a new copyright review has been underway for several months now, complete with hearings in the House Judiciary Committee. It’s a complex matter being discussed by serious people with many points of view and by a variety of stakeholders. And I am told by lawyers I know who have been the room with studio execs and the MPAA, that nobody is talking about extending terms. Meanwhile, the narrative that Hollywood alone holds Washington in the grip of its lobbyists has been outdated for quite some time, with those resources dwarfed by the expenditures of Google alone in its efforts to weaken copyright.
I get why Khanna’s charm and good looks make him an attractive poster boy to watch poke a hornet nest with a stick. But despite all the aggrandized prattle about the digital age elevating discourse in the world, this is all too often what it really looks like: a kid with exactly zero professional experience spouting a bunch of popular-sounding and oversimplified bullet points, all because it’s good click-bait. But that’s not where the real discussion is taking place, and neither should it be. This kind of reminds me of a moment in the year 2000 when CNN was reporting the unfolding disaster of the Russian sub Kursk, trapped deep in the Barents Sea and about to lose all hands. And CNN brings on action/thriller novelist Tom Clancy because of course he wrote The Hunt for Red October. Fourteen years later, this circus gets more absurd by the hour.
*This was mistakenly attributed to another article and link in The Washington Post. Thanks to Mr. Khanna for the correction.
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