Is it time for Congress to draft a replacement for the 1976 Copyright Law? In point of fact, the law was drafted almost half a decade ago now and its last major amendment came in 1998 with the addition of the DMCA. Many argue that the advent of digital technology, driven of course by the ubiquitous Internet, makes the current iteration of the Progress Clause obsolete.
Recently, in March 2014, the current Register of Copyrights, Maria Pallante, made just such a proposal to Congress, urging them to create “the next great copyright act.” You can read those remarks here. But contrary to that proposal, other advocates of the status quo point out that Congress has amended the current law to keep it up to date. In fact, Pallante acknowledged as much in her remarks when she said “[a]s a general matter, Congress introduces bills, directs studies, conducts hearings and discusses copyright policy on a fairly regular basis and has done so for two centuries.” Her push is a part of a coordinated movement with the House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va) to leave a mark on copyright law.
While I do not necessarily disagree with the Register of Copyrights that perhaps a consideration of a new consolidated law may be necessary to combine these various amendments, I am bothered by the fact that much of the urgency for a new law is driven by the various interested parties on the Internet who believe that just because a copyright finds its way into digital form, it is no longer protected and should be free for all to use, “mash up” or do whatever the hell they want to with it. These radical thinking individuals, such as The Pirate Bay, Lawrence Lessig, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others use heated rhetoric and emotional appeals to call for a lessening of the copyright protection that has made America the most idea-rich country in the world. While these illogical and emotional appeals are a good way to drum up support dollars and defeat well-meaning and good legislation such as SOPA, they do very little to advance the philosophical and legal debate and should not be the driving force behind our legislation, good or bad. Good emotional causes make for very bad law.
These dramatic appeals for changing the copyright act are most often done with a lack of understanding as to its philosophical underpinnings, and often demonstrate ignorance of the business realities faced by those who create the arts and sciences, as well as the benefactors who support them.
One of the things that bothered me most about Pallante’s remarks was the total absence of any discussion of these philosophical underpinning of the copyright construct. There was no discussion of Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of our Constitution (the Progress Clause) or any reference to some of the chief architects of its current form, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Charles Pickney, just to name a few. It also worries me when Pallante suggests that the current term – Life + 75 – “is long and the length has consequences,” thereby questioning the validity of the Supreme Court’s proclamation to the contrary in Eldred v. Ashcroft. The latter, of course, is one of about a half a dozen cases the aforementioned anti-copyright advocates has levied against the law over the years.
Sandra Aistars, executive director of the Copyright Alliance, summed it up well in an opinion piece for The Hill entitled “Protect rights of artist in new copyright law.” She said “Should Congress take on the challenge of updating the Copyright Act, it must do so guided by sound principles, and its deliberations must be based in reality rather than rhetoric.” At least Aistars points out that the principle of copyright law is driven by the fact that “protecting authors in in the public interest” and based on “stable property rights.”
Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 gives Congress the right “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Madison and Jefferson debated the various components of this clause with some degree of fervor in their massive collection of actual correspondence, with Madison defending the idea that if our society gives up a monopoly (copyright) to creators, the value of that monopoly will generate the creation of widespread ideas that would ultimately reward society. There is no doubt that the equitable component that was bestowed upon authors and inventors the day the Congressional Congress approved the Progress Clause has created the America we know and love today through the wealth of new ideas and expressions that have been created in the form of books, music, films, visual arts, scholarly research and inventions. Without that value in the patent or copyright, there would be no Apple, no Microsoft, no IBM, no Ford, no Chevrolet . . . you get the point. This is the reward that Madison envisioned our society would gain by giving individuals control over their creations, a theory that Locke and others disseminated long before the new nation of America was conceived.
As Aistars summarized in her article, “Ensuring that all creators retain the freedom of choice in determining how their creative work is used, disseminated and monetized is vital to protecting freedom of expression. Consent is at the heart of freedom, thus we must judge any proposed update by whether it prioritizes artists’ rights to have meaningful control over their creative work and livelihood.”
The most important thing for Congress to consider if it picks up the gauntlet laid down by Ms. Pallante is this idea that society benefits by giving a monopoly to creators. Given an individual who has created a work of authorship stable property ownership in that work is the foundation of our great Country and is the primary goal of copyright. To take that away takes away one of our inherent and valuable Constitutional rights, even greater perhaps than our Freedom of Speech and Assembly. Any new proposal much cherish the rights of the creators that the current Copyright Act has created and retain the same privileges and advantages. The future of our Nation in the Internet Age depends on it.