House Judiciary Committee Hears Concerns From Silicon Valley About Copyright Law
from the now-what? dept
Yesterday afternoon, for about two and a half hours, members of the House Judiciary Committee took part in what they’re calling they’re “Copyright Review Listening Tour” for a roundtable in Silicon Valley. There were 20 participants in the roundtable, mostly made up of people who work in and around the technology industry. Today, the Representatives will host a similar roundtable down in LA, which will be mostly made up of entertainment industry folks. Unfortunately, this aspect of the tour seems to reinforce the silly idea that copyright law is a battle between “Silicon Valley” vs. “Hollywood” — and that what’s good for one is bad for the other.
Reps. Blake Farenthold, Darrell Issa, Jerry Nadler. Photo by Parker Higgins, EFF, CC BY
That whole line of argument is ridiculous and counterproductive — as a few of the panelists at yesterday’s hearing made clear. Good copyright law enables new platforms to rise up and that provides more opportunities for content creators to create, to distribute, to build a fan base and to monetize. Bad copyright law recreates a gatekeeper-based system where only the elite can choose what content is allowed to reach the public. In short, the innovations that are being created are actually helping content creators and are living up to the Constitutional requirements for copyright: that it “promote the progress.” But it’s frequently not copyright that’s doing that job — it’s the technology innovations.
Panelists Timothy Vollmer, Brianna Schofield, Zoe Keating, Michael Keller & Brewster Kahle. Photo by Parker Higgins, EFF, CC BY
And the key thing that we heard yesterday was how copyright was actually counterproductive in that it has frequently blocked innovative services from existing or from providing the best services for content creators. There were a few key themes that became clear throughout the hearing:
- Statutory damages are an absolute disaster and create massive chilling effects for free speech and innovation. Multiple panelists discussed how much of a problem statutory damages are for innovation. They highlighted how frequently they are abused to stifle innovation and to create fear among people for doing something most people think should be legal. The disconnect between the actual “infringement” and the punishment is a major problem. Somewhat surprisingly (in a good way!), the members from Congress seemed quite interested and concerned about the problems of statutory damages. Rep. Jerry Nadler, who historically has basically supported the RIAA position on all copyright-related issues, surprised me by agreeing that statutory damages seem like a real problem, and noting that basically all other torts require a showing of actual damages. Rep. Darrell Issa admitted that it was unlikely Congress would be able to dump statutory damages “in the next decade,” but asked for ideas on ways to “bend” the system in a more reasonable way. The panelists made a few suggestions — including a personal use exemption and a “good faith” defense for sites (and users, I guess) where they don’t believe what they’re doing is infringing. Such a defense, if successful, would take away statutory damages, and only allow actual damages. A potentially better alternative was requiring the copyright holder to prove “bad faith” to move from actual damages to statutory damages. That Congress even seems open to this is a huge step in the right direction.
- Fair use is important and shouldn’t be cut back. Lots of good discussions from panelists about the importance of fair use and how bad decisions create real chilling effects on innovation. When the one “Hollywood” person on the panel, CreativeFuture’s Ruth Vitale, made a slightly nonsensical argument that increasing fair use was bad for creators, other panelists quickly pointed out that’s not even close to true, and tons of content creators regularly rely on fair use to create content. Rep. Nadler (again, long a supporter of expanding copyright law) noted that he believes fair use needs to be made “less dangerous” for people to embrace it. That was really encouraging.
- The problem of bogus DMCA takedowns is massive and there needs to be real punishment. Brianna Schofield, from Berkeley, pointed to research showing that companies that actually review DMCA takedowns are now rejecting between 40 and 60% of them as bogus takedowns, designed to censor content, rather than legitimate copyright claims. And Alex Feerst (and some others) suggested that what’s really needed is real teeth to Section 512(f) of the DMCA, which is supposed to punish those who send bogus DMCA takedowns, but, as we’ve seen, is entirely toothless based on the way courts currently interpret it. Rep. Issa actually asked if there should be criminal punishment for bogus takedowns, which I think took people by surprise, and probably goes too far.
- The DMCA’s 1201 anti-circumvention provisions are a disaster and the idea that people need to re-apply every three years just to fix products they own — because of copyright law — is messed up. Again, it was nice to see that the Representatives really seemed to get this fact and seemed interested in looking at ways to fix Section 1201 — such that you couldn’t use digital locks and DRM for anti-competitive purposes or to control other aspects of your business.
- Orphan works are a problem and the Copyright Office’s solution is a disaster. Multiple panelists pointed out that the orphan works problem remains a big, big problem — and they’re concerned that the most recent suggestion from the Copyright Office (which requires “registration” to use an orphan work) is an absolutely terrible solution. People suggested going back to the previous Copyright Office proposal from a few years ago, that just required a diligent search for the copyright owner — but that plan died when photographers freaked out after misreading the proposal. The Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle even brought up the suggestion of fixing the orphan works problem by returning to a system of “formalities” in which a copyright holder is required to register to get the copyright (rather than automatically getting it) and then would need to renew the copyright every five years with another payment. As Kahle pointed out, this would also help solve some of the concerns Congress has over funding the Copyright Office. This is a suggestion that many have made over the years that had been mostly ignored — but at least a few on the panel seemed interested in the idea, with Rep. Issa rightly pointing out that the patent office already works this way.
- Modernizing the Copyright Office: The panelists went back to this issue multiple times, in part because it’s hot in DC right now, though much of the tech industry has basically avoided the discussion. Both the Copyright Office and the Library of Congress (which is where the Copyright Office is housed) are antiquated, with terrible and broken technology. Hollywood is strongly pushing to take the Copyright Office out of the Library of Congress and set it up as its own independent agency to try to give it more power (and because they don’t like that the Library of Congress actually takes into account things like what’s good for the public…). Ruth Vitale kept arguing for a separate Copyright Office, but when pressed on why, the only thing she could come up with was that the Library of Congress needs more room to store all of its books. Really. Michael Keller, the University Librarian at Stanford, rightly pointed out that pulling the Copyright Office out of the Library of Congress wouldn’t fix anything — it would just create more “chaos” and leave us with two dysfunctional organizations, rather than one.
There were some other points made, but overall, it was surprisingly encouraging in that most of the hearing didn’t focus on red herrings and the usual boring talking points in copyright debates, but rather really did focus in on specific key issues. And, most surprising of all was that many of the Congressional Reps who were there not only seemed really engaged and mostly on point concerning the issues raised, but actually seemed open to looking at real legislative proposals on these issues. Of course, going from there to actually getting proposals before Congress is still going to take a Herculean effort — because almost all of the good proposals listed above would almost immediately be fought hard by the big Hollywood studio lobbyists, who still seem to think of this as a zero sum game — where any improvement to fair use is an attack on them, or any attempt to make sure the DMCA isn’t abused is somehow a direct assault on the film business.
The biggest point that went totally missing from the debate was the TPP and other existing trade agreements. It’s worth noting that for all the talk of fixing DMCA 1201 or solving the orphan works problem, doing so would almost certainly violate what the USTR just put into the TPP agreement that Congress needs to ratify (or not!) in the next few months. It was a little disappointing that no one raised this issue, and the fact that if Congress doesn’t want to give up its power to make these kinds of fixes, it should vote down the TPP. Similarly, ideas like Brewster Kahle’s return to copyright formalities requirements would violate the Berne Convention, and other changes suggested would violate a variety of other existing trade agreements. Of course, Congress should be willing to do exactly that in order to fix a terribly broken copyright system, but with at least the TPP currently on Congress’s docket, it seems important to remind them that, in many ways, the TPP can bind Congress’s hands in addressing many of the problems brought up at the hearing.