July 11, 2016

Hillary Clinton weighs in on copyright law


There have been a lot of big-ticket talking points this election season. Too many of them seem to revolve around the construction of ginormous border walls or the size of some jerkoff landlord’s fingers. But there have also been some attempts to hew, with dignity frayed but basically intact, to the world of policy. On that front, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is now addressing one issue that really does matter: copyright law.

Clinton provides a roadmap to the brave future of copyright in America in a paragraph buried way, way, way down in her very dull detailed and pedantic comprehensive policy brief on technology and innovation:

Effective Copyright Policy: Copyrights encourage creativity and incentivize innovators to invest knowledge, time, and money into the generation of myriad forms of content. However, the copyright system has languished for many decades, and is in need of administrative reform to maximize its benefits in the digital age. Hillary believes the federal government should modernize the copyright system by unlocking—and facilitating access to—orphan works that languished unutilized, benefiting neither their creators nor the public. She will also promote open-licensing arrangements for copyrighted material and data supported by federal grant funding, including in education, science, and other fields. She will seek to develop technological infrastructure to support digitization, search, and repositories of such content, to facilitate its discoverability and use. And she will encourage stakeholders to work together on creative solutions that remove barriers to the seamless and efficient licensing of content in the U.S. and abroad

Lots of this seems like technocratic jargon for “build more websites.” But, as Chris Meadows points out in a piece at Teleread, Clinton’s open advocacy for the liberation of orphan works could be a pretty big deal for publishers, authors, and libraries.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, orphan works are, in the words of the American Library Association, “works whose copyright holders cannot be identified or found — and are not made publicly available by libraries for fear that rights holders will come forward, initiate legal action, and demand statutory damages of up to $150,000 a work.”

The question of the legal status of orphan works was a key issue in the 2015 Author’s Guild suit against Google Books, and is predicted by some to become more and more pertinent to US and international copyright law, as more and more works fall into the category.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s rejection of Google’s settlement in the Author’s Guild case, the US Copyright Office and the Association of Research Libraries have released in-depth reports on the issue, generally calling for clearer legislation on the issue and greater protections for publishers and providers making good faith efforts to determine the ownership of a given work, but, Congress being what it is, nothing substantive has been done to redress the issue.

The ARL in particular warns that the failure to effectively deal with the problem of orphan works may lead to a situation in which “a significant part of the world’s cultural heritage embodied in copyright protected works may not be exploited and may therefore fall into a so called ‘20th-century digital black hole.’”

Now, black holes are fucking rad, and if recent science fiction movies are any indication (which they definitely should not be), being inside of them is probably pretty cool. But unless Matthew McConaughey’s there too to beam our cultural heritage back home to us, black holes are not where we want it. My point is that it’s good Clinton has her eye on this issue—an example of exactly the kind of nitty-gritty, in-the-trenches policy analysis that she’s hung her hat on.

But — and it’s a big but — there remains the roadblock of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would probably make any kind of serious copyright reform impossible. Clinton’s record on the TPP is a little confusing, though of late she’s opposed a lame-duck vote on the agreement, and has done much to distance herself from the trade pact.

So, sure, Hillary remains something of an enigmatic candidate: inspiringly competent and effective, but at times bafflingly inconsistent. Luckily, her qualifications and limitations make no difference at all, because this is the alternative. So, in the immortal words of Sean“Puffy” Combs, vote or die, motherfucker.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.