May 20, 2013

Copyright reform discussions underway, first punches being thrown


Length of term restrictions? *crunch*

When the current Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante called for an overhaul of the copyright system back in March, the House listened. And last week, hearings began in the Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee in an attempt to come up with, if not a completely new copyright act, at least some avenues for reform. And it’s already getting ugly.

In an article in Politico last Monday, musician David Lowery of the bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven registered his annoyance about the fact that creators weren’t included in the discussion. What he’s referring to is the Copyright Principles Project, a group of copyright experts who put together a white paper that the House will be drawing on extensively during the hearings.

The CPP includes law professors from across the country, lawyers in private practice, and lawyers for such companies as IBM, Disney, Microsoft, and Warner Brothers. But no content creators. Lowery called the CPP a “group of Big Tech and Big Media companies and the lawyers and academics who love them” and argues that their recommendations shift the burden onto artists while failing to protect them from the abuse that new forms of distribution and circulation make possible.

His concerns are well-justified: the Disney Corporation has never really been the partner you want to bring to the copyright dance if you’re looking to innovate in the digital age. But Mike Masick at TechDirt is more sanguine about the prospects for the hearings, given the participants:

Having Samuelson [Pam Samuelson, professor at Berkeley Law School] on the list is the key one, as she was the driving force behind the project and is one of, if not the most, knowledgeable folks concerning copyright issues around. I recognize that any copyright reform process could go seriously off the rails once certain lobbyists go crazy over it, but I’m going to take an optimistic approach here and hope for the best.

The white paper itself reflects the difficulty of getting anything near to consensus on these issues. Though it comes to some conclusions and makes certain recommendations, there are still caveats so strong that they give a sense of just how touchy everyone is about even suggesting that they might agree with one position or another. Sarah Laskow at the Columbia Journalism Review called out these statements in the paper:

The CPP’s final report, for instance, noted that “various members of the group maintain reservations and even objections to some proposals described as recommendations in this Report.” And so, they wrote, “we do not intend affirmative statements or the use of phrases, such as ‘we recommend’ or ‘we believe,’ to suggest that the group as a whole was uniformly in support of each particular view stated.”

It is, in short, going to be long, hard slog ahead for this particular set of recommendations, no matter what their virtues. Let’s hope it results in more than just a few black eyes and bruised ribs.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.