GOP Committee Causes Stir by Posting, Pulling Paper on Copyright Reform

One of the big stories in the tech world this weekend was a policy brief published by the Republican Study Committee titled “Three Myths About Copyright Law and Where to Start to Fix It,” which people called “shockingly sensible” and a “watershed” paper. However, just one day after it went up, the paper suddenly vanished.

The committee’s executive director Paul S. Teller sent out this explanation:

We at the RSC take pride in providing informative analysis of major policy issues and pending legislation that accounts for the range of perspectives held by RSC Members and within the conservative community. Yesterday you received a Policy Brief on copyright law that was published without adequate review within the RSC and failed to meet that standard. Copyright reform would have far-reaching impacts, so it is incredibly important that it be approached with all facts and viewpoints in hand. As the RSC’s Executive Director, I apologize and take full responsibility for this oversight.

The same publications that had praised the paper now jumped on the committee, accusing the group of “flip-flopping,” “cowardice,” and being browbeat by Hollywood lobbyists.

So what exactly did the paper advocate? We were able to snag a copy, so you can see for yourself:

The paper attempts to dispel three myths about copyright law:

“The purpose of copyright is to compensate the creator of the content”

[…] according to the Constitution, the overriding purpose of the copyright system is to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.” In today’s terminology we may say that the purpose is to lead to maximum productivity and innovation.

This is a major distinction, because most legislative discussions on this topic, particularly during the extension of the copyright term, are not premised upon what is in the public good or what will promote the most productivity and innovation, but rather what the content creators “deserve” or are “entitled to” by virtue of their creation. This lexicon is appropriate in the realm of taxation and sometimes in the realm of trade protection, but it is inappropriate in the realm of patents and copyrights.

“Copyright is free market capitalism at work”

Copyright violates nearly every tenet of laissez faire capitalism. Under the current system of copyright, producers of content are entitled to a guaranteed, government instituted, government subsidized content-monopoly. It is guaranteed because it is automatic upon publishing.

“The current copyright legal regime leads to the greatest innovation and productivity”

With no copyright protection, it was perceived that there would be insufficient incentive for content producers to create new content – without the ability to compensate them for their work. And with too much copyright protection, as in copyright protection that carried on longer than necessary for the incentive, it will greatly stifle innovation. In addition, excessive copyright protection leads to what economists call “rent-seeking” which is effectively non-productive behavior that sucks economic productivity and potential from the overall economy.

The paper suggests a number of possible ways to reform copyright law, including rethinking statutory damages (doling out punishment according to the law rather than based on actual damages), expanding and clarifying fair use, creating harsher punishments for false copyright claims, and limiting copyright duration and making renewal less attractive.

Canada recently passed a landmark copyright reform law — could the United States be moving toward one as well? This is one case that photographers should keep a close eye on, since it may have a big impact on your ability to protect your photos and pursue copyright infringers.

P.S. For more on this story, check out this article by TechDirt, which broke the story, and this second one published after the paper was pulled.

  • Rob LaRosa

    I always thought copyright had more to do with the creator being able to control the use of his/her creation. Not so much how they’re compensated. Although, that certain is a small part of the broader picture.

  • Christopher Hagen

    The one thing I did not like about the Republicans proposal was the fact that you have to register to get the free copyright protection. I think it should be 12 years, regardless.

    No sense in giving advertisers free reign over pictures posted to flikr. Make them pay someone unless the picture is over 12 years old and not copyrighted. Then go nuts.

  • KillaPenguin

    This is the most logical and well-thought-out paper I’ve read coming from congress in a long time. Too bad it got pulled.

  • matt

    I do think there needs to be some change to copyright; Some copyrights do seem to be a lot longer than necessary and some common sense could be applied to the monetary damages.

    However, the paper is way off base on a lot of points. What is really needed is an easy way to contact a copyright holder and an easy way to work out a deal. And, hey there is this thing called the interent that could do just that…
    So, what to do if a copyright holder does not want to work with you? Easy, create your own work or hire someone to create it for you. What you don’t do is to just copy it without regard to the author.

  • bob cooley

    I’m certainly in agreement that the current copyright code has its flaws, and updates are definitely something to be explored, but its a sword that cuts both ways…

    Many people who rail against the current copyright law are primarily interested in fighting copyright held by large corporations, but its those same laws that protect individual photographers and artists, and help us to continue to create and innovate.

    Reform is needed, but be careful to not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  • eraserhead12

    “And with too much copyright protection . . . it will greatly stifle innovation”

    Hellllooooooooooo Apple.

  • derekdj

    That’s exactly why it got pulled.

  • shashinka

    I mistook the RSC logo for Cthulhu, and was all like, it’s about damn time.

  • Pablo

    The policy brief misstates the law almost immediately. Publication is no longer a requirement for obtaining a copyright (ever since 1978). Even providing notice of a copyright on the work is no longer required (ever since 1988; failure to provide notice once caused a work to fall into the public domain). The only thing required is a “fixing” of the work in a way that can be viewed/seen/heard/etc. by a human being (“tangible medium”). Not a very good start for a “policy brief.”

    And registration is only required to obtain statutory damages (i.e., the unlicensed copying occurred when the work was registered) or start a lawsuit, not copyright protection.

  • Petr Kadlec

    It depends. There are many “philosophical” concepts copyright is based on. The US have the “promote the progress of science and useful arts” definition in the Constitution, on the other hand, the European concept is more about the creation being a unique manifestation of the author’s personality, so it belongs only to the author, who has total control over the copyrighted work (which is also why EU recognizes moral rights, while there is no such thing in the US).