GULC student’s memo triggers controversy

On Friday, Dec. 16 the Republican Study Committee (RSC ) posted a brief written by Derek Khanna, Georgetown 2E, criticizing the existing copyright systems’ laws and effects. Twenty-four hours later it had vanished. The RSC ’ s director, Paul Tel l e r justified the removal on the bas i s that it had been “published without adequate review.”

Media organizations ant political groups were quick to react. The Huffington Post accused the Republican Party of throwing Derek “under the bus.” Yet liberals were not the only ones voicing their support of Derek’s memo, as the staunchly Republican RedState.org stated that the RSC “should not have pulled the paper.” By all accounts, whichever political affiliation, the memo was overwhelmingly commended for its bold critique of a status quo system that is in desperate need of reform.

The report took an unconventional approach, addressing “three myths about copyright law and where to start to fix it.” It outlined three main fallacies underlying the current system:

  1. 1.       “The purpose of copyright is to compensate the creator of content,”
  2. 2.       “Copyright is free market capitalism at work,”
  3. 3.       “The current copyright legal regime leads to the greatest innovation and productivity.”

It then outline four possible solutions:

  1. 1.       Statutory damages reform
  2. 2.       Expansion of fair use
  3. 3.       Punishments for false copyright claims
  4. 4.       Drastic limitations on copyright terms.

As to copyright terms, long-lasting copyrights theoretically incentivize investment. But the memo argued at some point gains turn into losses, with old claims stifling new creativity. The memo also generally argued for viewing copyright more as a kind of regulation rather than actual property; an analysis that was called ‘fascinating’ by a reporter at Slate.

The paper was praised as “shockingly sensible” in incentivizing innovation in the area and “perhaps the most insightful and thoughtful piece of scholarship on copyright to come out of a government body in decades.” Why then was its posting so short-lived?

There is still mystery as to who or what exactly forced the removal of the article, but general suspicion points to industry lobbyists who put pressure on the RSC to have it taken down. According to a reporter at the blog TechDirt, the occurrence of the memo caused the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America to go “ballistic and hit the phones hard, demanding that the RSC take down the report.” The two heavyweight groups have proven to wield substantial political power with Democrat and Republican political groups alike.

Two observations can be made: one is cause for optimism, the other much less so. The positive is that it has brought necessary debate to the forefront again. The negative is that a constructive and innovative approach was withdrawn for unbecoming reasons, whether it be the pressure of an entrenched industry or the inability of a policy research organization to even consider an audacious and productive approach for fear of political consequences. In either case, the episode casts doubt as to whether copyright reform can really be achieved.

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