In November 2012, it appeared for a day that some influential Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, chastened by their party’s defeat in the 2012 elections, were actually looking for innovative ways to reform the American political system and their own tainted image. Yet, in the area of copyright reform, Mike Massnick of Techdirt writes that it took these same Republicans a mere day to cave into the usual special-interest pressures from recording-industry and film-industry lobbying associations.
Although the Republican Study Committee (RSC) initially produced a promising report on copyright reform (fortunately saved on an external site prior to its prompt removal from the RSC website), its retraction was far more revealing than the report itself. If anything, this episode seems to show how beholden the Republican Party is (as is the Democratic Party) to Hollywood lobbyists, which are possibly the most pernicious and damaging lobbyists in the US, if not the world, today (in close competition with the “security” lobby of the military-industrial complex). To pull a report after it has already been released smacks of behind-the-scenes lobbying influence of the greatest impropriety – the same backroom machinations that brought us one failed attempt after another at draconian Internet censorship: COICA, SOPA, PROTECT IP, ACTA, and surely more to come.
It is possible that both major parties might marginally improve if certain lobbying blocs were weakened or disregarded. However, I doubt that these effects are possible to achieve by politicians. Rather, civil society needs to exert pressure on the lobbyists and expose their machinations to the sunlight of transparency. Even the retracted report can be used to spread an understanding among the general public that the politicians themselves recognize the absurd and repressive nature of the current system of copyright law – if they are allowed a moment to think for themselves without being lied to, threatened, and cajoled by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Furthermore, technological changes and institutional innovations need to occur so as to disempower the traditional lobbying blocs – particularly Hollywood (RIAA, MPAA, et al.) and the military-industrial-security complex.
Public sentiment against draconian copyright laws has indeed been heightened by the recent movements against SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act in the United States and against ACTA in Europe. But it is also likely that the majority of people in the Western world who use the Internet have long considered current copyright law to be unreasonable – hence the extent of online piracy that otherwise law-abiding persons engage in. If politicians were responsive to broader public opinion (as opposed to special-interest influence), then the proposals to reform copyright law would have been seen as no-brainers. Indeed, copyright terms would never have been lengthened in the first place, and copyright terms would have probably remained close to the original 14 years, while prosecution and litigation for non-commercial use of copyrighted works would never have occurred. The key challenge in the copyright wars is to dislodge the power of the special-interest lobbies, which exert undue pressure on the politicians and lead politicians to largely ignore public opinion – with the recent exception of massive campaigns of outrage at attempts to censor the Internet in the name of copyright protection.
So, while public pressure on politicians should certainly continue (especially acute pressure that derails pernicious legislation or achieves incremental improvements), the long-term solution must work to undermine the very influence of the special interests that push for longer copyright terms. This should be done not just through spreading improved information and arguments on the subject, but also through a change in consumption patterns away from the “traditional” 20th-century forms of media and toward the more decentralized, participatory media available via the Internet – as well as away from the creations of large recording and movie studios and toward works by much smaller-scale independent creators who are roughly equal with their consumers in terms of bargaining power. These independent creators are much more likely to market their works under a “copyleft” (e.g., Creative Commons) license or even to release them into the public domain. They are also much less likely to viciously persecute their consumers, and are thus appealing enough to enable people to want to pay them.
In order for this cultural and consumption shift to occur, many more people must begin to use the Internet for much of their entertainment. This is the key behavior that many in the younger generations have already adopted – but, unfortunately, too much aversion to computers and the Internet still persists among many older Americans (of course, exceptions abound, but the statistical generational divide is nonetheless vast), whose consumption of the obsolete 20th-century media supports the special-interest lobbies. If all of these people were to become proficient with the Internet overnight, then the agenda of the draconian pro-copyright lobbies would instantly become a non-starter. This thought offers another promising way forward: for every one of our acquaintances, friends, and relatives whom we persuade to use the Internet extensively for the first time – and to like it – we make the special-interest lobbies incrementally weaker, gradually sapping the financial resources available to them for combating common-sense liberalizations of copyright law.