Given the state of Republican rhetoric in recent years, I was very surprised to find them endorsing a cause I can actually wholeheartedly support—but they did so this past weekend, for less than 24 hours before they hastily retracted it. I refer to a paper issued by the Republican Study Committee, the caucus for House Republicans, stating that current US copyright law is stifling creativity instead of encouraging it, and is in dire need of drastic reforms. (The paper is embedded below this article.)
The paper pointed out that copyright is all about encouraging the progress of the useful arts, not compensating creators as an end in itself. It argued the current regime represents a failure of the free market by giving artificial monopolies, and it doesn’t induce productivity because people can earn money on their works until long after they’re dead.
It stated that current statutory damages for copyright violation are ridiculous. (In 2011, the record labels sued LimeWire for $75 trillion, more money than the recording industry has made as a whole since the invention of the phonograph in the 19th century.) It noted that the current copyright system was harming innovative or beneficial uses of copyrighted material, such as remixing, scientific inquiry, an online public library, and journalism. And it proposed reforms such as expanding fair use, and drastically shortening copyright terms, with a sliding scale of extensions that would provide creators with incentive to let copyright lapse if they were no longer earning out from it.
The report was up for less than 24 hours before it was hastily retracted, with the Executive Director of the Republican Study Committee claiming that it had been “published without adequate review within the RSC”. (If you believe that, would you perhaps be interested in buying a bridge or two?)
As Mike Masnick points out on Techdirt:
The idea that this was published "without adequate review" is silly. Stuff doesn’t just randomly appear on the RSC website. Anything being posted there has gone through the same full review process. What happened, instead, was that the entertainment industry’s lobbyists went crazy, and some in the GOP folded.
Masnick goes on to point out that copyright is a hot issue for much of today’s youth culture, who are used to using the technological tools available to them to remix and reuse content regardless of its status under copyright. Many of the reactions to the original paper suggested that a lot of Democrats would switch parties in a heartbeat if the Republican party carried through with its position. But it didn’t. In a later post, Masnick recommends contacting your congressperson and telling them you want them to take the ideas expressed in the report to heart.
Engadget has posted an excellent and somewhat lengthy editorial on the matter, exploring the paper in detail and speculating on why it met its quick fate:
Quasi-hacker rhetoric like this understandably infuses joy into the hearts of P2P champions, while tempting the wrath of entertainment powerhouses by savaging the RIAA’s litigation tactics. It is easy to imagine that the report’s quick retraction was a response to horrified institutional rights-holders and lobbyists. As of this writing, nobody knows what exactly happened.
In the aftermath, there are a couple of things we can take from this. One is that, for all that the Republicans control a majority in the House and a filibuster-proof minority in the Senate, and were one of the driving forces behind shutting down SOPA, it seems fairly obvious now who is controlling them. (Less than 24 hours? On a weekend? Seriously guys, you couldn’t even hold out until Monday?)
But, perhaps more optimistically, that the report even made it to publication at all shows that there must be a good number of copyright-reform-minded Republicans in Congress, and they’re not likely to change their underlying beliefs even if Hollywood successfully makes them eat their words. And as the younger generations grow more powerful, the older ones will surely see their influence start to wane sooner or later. We can only wait and hope.
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