Will Copyright Reform be SOPA in Disguise?

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What does one do in honor of World Intellectual Property Day? For most people the response is to say “wait, it’s World Intellectual Property Day?” shrug, and then go back to other matters (like downloading intellectual property). But if you are US Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), and you chair the House Judiciary Committee, well, you might celebrate with a bit more pomp! Especially, if that means that you are delivering remarks at the Library of Congress.

So what did Representative Goodlatte say? And, more importantly, did he say it at a proper volume so that it could be heard by all without him risking being shushed by a librarian? Luckily the text of his comments was made available in a press release (no shushing necessary) with the easily understandable title of “Chairman Goodlatte Announces Comprehensive Review of Copyright Law.

After opening his remarks with some light humorous patter (the revision of the copyright law in 1909 was to make it applicable to motion pictures [hilarious {you had to be there (I mean in 1909)}]), Goodlatte goes on to explain that copyright law has not exactly kept pace with the changes in the technologically enhanced dissemination of copyrighted material.  Example please (bonus points if you couch it in a reference to the founders)! Luckily Goodlatte obliges:

“Our Founding Fathers could never have imagined a day in which citizens would be able to immediately access the knowledge and news of the world on their smartphones as they walk down the street.”

This is a fair point, it may also be a fair point that “our Founding Fathers” might “never have imagined” assault rifles or ballooning student debt or climate change or Star Trek or People magazine, but I digress. Back to you Representative Goodlatte:

“The Internet has enabled copyright owners to make available their works to consumers around the world, but has also enabled others to do so without any compensation for copyright owners.  Efforts to digitize our history so that all have access to it face questions about copyright ownership by those who are hard, if not impossible, to locate. There are concerns about statutory license and damage mechanisms. Federal judges are forced to make decisions using laws that are difficult to apply today. Even the Copyright Office itself faces challenges in meeting the growing needs of its customers – the American public.”

The solution, as should be expected from the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is to announce:

“that the House Judiciary Committee will hold a comprehensive series of hearings on U.S. copyright law in the months ahead. The goal of these hearings will be to determine whether the laws are still working in the digital age. I welcome all interested parties to submit their views and concerns to the Committee.”

Let us start by stating the obvious: contemporary copyright laws are a mess, and they do need to be revisited for the current age. The number of works (particularly audio works) that may disappear because nobody is sure who the copyright holder is (and therefore authorized to approve digitization/conservation) is staggering. Most people seem rather befuddled by much of the tangle that is copyright law (I say this as somebody who explains what “Fair Use” means on a daily basis). And something does need to be done to give cultural creators better means of controlling the dissemination of their work (though there are certainly solutions other than tighter copyright laws).

In other words Representative Goodlatte’s basic insight is correct: copyright laws need to be updated. Librarians (and many others) have been saying that for years.

Yet this announcement should cause as much pause as optimism, if not more pause than optimism. Copyright law needs to be adjusted, but whose interests are going to be focused upon in the revamping of these laws? Will strengthening the public domain be the focus? Shall Creative Commons be used as an example? Or will this be a stealth way of executing many of the policies that have caused uproar from many groups of late? Does Goodlatte mean it when he welcomes “all interested parties?” Before you answer consider the following…

Representative Goodlatte was one of the original sponsors and coauthors of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and as should come as no surprise he was one of the Representatives who helped CISPA to pass the House (just last week [he cosponsored CISPA the first time around]). So what direction might his copyright review take? And whose opinions shall he solicit?

In the “Technology and Innovation” section of Representative Goodlatte’s website are the following helpful sentences:

“I support efforts to enforce our nation’s intellectual property laws to ensure that those who steal the intellectual property of others are prosecuted.  I also believe that technology can provide some of the most effective solutions to help protect intellectual property.”

Those do not seem to be the statements of somebody with a goal of broadening copyright to allow a more relaxed understanding of Fair Use (and other) policies. Rather they seem to be the words of somebody who wants to see SOPA or CISPA or whatever it’s going to be called, pass under the seemingly friendly guise of “copyright reform.” After all, he says “prosecuted” not “preserved” for the ages, or better yet, “shared.” Thus the challenge falls to those of us who would like to see copyright updated to benefit the public (and creators [as opposed to just those who hire creators]) to ensure that copyright reform is reform and not regression.

Copyright laws in the US need to be reformed, they need to be reformed badly; however, they need to be reformed in a way that benefits the public instead of in a way that simply ensures that a cartoon mouse thought up by a long dead anti-Semite never enters the public domain. And they need to be updated in a way that won’t result in you being prosecuted for making a mash-up video featuring Representative Goodlatte and an advertisement for where you can obtain a good latte.

True, all that has been announced so far is Goodlatte’s intention to review copyright laws but this is a conversation that we need to engage with at the outset instead of launching a campaign when the bill is already being voted on.

Do you want World Intellectual Property Day (which is actually the 26th) to be about the World, or do you just want it to be about property? Alas, I think we know how Representative Goodlatte answers that question.

[cross posted at librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com]

[Note: I first came across the press release at Library Journal, as part of the Info Docket blog]

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