It shouldn't be controversial to demand evidence-based policies in the copyright space. But over and over, Congress has failed to engage in an informed discussion over which copyright policies advance the public interest, and which ones cause harm. That's why we're supporting our friends at Fight for the Future in their launch of a campaign to urge Congress to engage in a reality-based debate about our copyright policy.
Last month, when Derek Khanna—a staffer for an influential policy group called the Republican Study Committee (RSC)—put forward a report busting some persistent myths about copyright, he wasn't met with a real debate or with fact-checking. Within a day his employer, reportedly under pressure from legislators supported by major copyright industries, retracted the report. Within two weeks, Khanna was told he would no longer have a job with the RSC.
That's right: instead of engaging in a fact-based discussion over how copyright policy should be decided, representatives of the content lobby (or the legislators they support) thought it would be a better idea just to silence the debate.
Perhaps that's because the facts aren't in their favor: Khanna's document called attention to some of the principal problems with today's copyright policy. The term of copyright is much too long, which chills innovations, weakens the public domain, and creates an enormous "orphan works" problem. The statutory damages are far too high, leading to insane awards of up to $150,000 per infringement in some cases. And over and over the public has seen its traditional rights eroded at the hands of a constantly expanding realm of copyright coverage, whether it's undermining the first sale doctrine, limiting personal uses of legally-purchased content, or jeopardizing property that happens to be stored in the cloud.
A year ago, these facts may have been the exclusive domain of legal specialists and law professors, but that's no longer the case. If there's one lesson that legislators should have gotten from the blackout protests against SOPA this January, it's that the public recognizes that copyright issues are free speech issues. We're not willing to let one industry steamroll online civil liberties in the name of preserving its profits.
Because we know where bad policy leads. It leads to innocent websites being censored, pulled offline for over a year because of unfounded accusations from the recording industry. It leads to hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines over a handful of downloaded tracks—a situation in which even the judge is pleading to Congress for badly needed reform. It leads to Supreme Court battles that could decide whether you are allowed to sell your legally purchased goods that were manufactured overseas.
It doesn't have to be that way. Congress could act to bring copyright policy into line with reality, even at the risk of upsetting a content lobby long-used to getting their way when it comes to copyright. This is a lobby that has convinced Congress to pass 15 laws against "piracy" in the last 30 years. It will take serious pressure from the public to let Congress know that it’s time for real copyright reform that benefits everyone—not just a few entrenched interests.
So join us in calling on Congress: when the legislative session resumes in January, let's have a reality-based debate, and let's fix copyright.