Copyright reform is possible

Derek Khanna Technology Activist
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In January of 2012, many expected the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) to pass Congress.

Free speech advocates were extremely worried about the impact of the legislation, which they rightfully perceived as a form of Internet censorship. Many technology experts argued that SOPA would cause irreparable harm to how the Internet itself functions without offering any real prospect of stopping piracy.

The bill had numerous powerful supporters, but Americans did not want the bill to pass — and they made their voices heard. In a massive, unified protest on January 18, 2012, they demonstrated against it online and in cities across the nation.

Within days of the widespread protests, dozens of members who had cosponsored the legislation came out against it. SOPA was ultimately not even brought to the floor for a vote.

In the months since SOPA’s defeat, many people have been asking what the next step is in the fight for more sensible tech policies. I believe the answer is copyright reform.

In a report published on November 16, 2012, the House Republican Study Committee (RSC) called for major reforms to our copyright system. The report said that our copyright system “should be based upon what promotes the maximum ‘progress of sciences and useful arts’ instead of ‘deserving’ financial compensation.” As the author of that report, I was proud that the RSC, as an incubator of new conservative legislative ideas, was taking the lead on this important issue.

The RSC report explained that our Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution with explicit instructions that enabled a “limited copyright — not an indefinite monopoly.” At the time, copyrights lasted for 14 years upon registration, with an optional 14-year renewal. Today we have an extreme and unprecedented copyright term: the author’s life plus 70 years (which because of routine extension is effectively an infinite copyright). The report argued in favor of limiting copyright terms in order to strike a balance between the need to encourage content production and the need to allow the development of new business models that benefit consumers.

The report argued that our current copyright regime is particularly disruptive to new market models and innovation. The laws currently in place have impeded scientific inquiry, stifled the creation of a public-domain library, discouraged the creation of added-value industries, hampered free-market growth and penalized legitimate journalism and oversight. For example, scientific research from 1956 — research that might provide the basis for new scientific inquiries — is not accessible as part of the public domain.

Numerous conservative organizations and individuals have come out in favor of copyright reform. Many magazines, blogs and activist organizations, both political and apolitical, are strongly supportive of reforms. After the RSC report was published, a number of conservative members of Congress were interested in moving forward on copyright reform. Unfortunately, due to pushback, the report was subsequently taken offline — though it was neither disowned nor repudiated.

The interest generated by the RSC report shows that copyright reform is an issue that people are interested in debating. This is what politics should be about: debating, discussing and considering new policy solutions. If you’re part of a dysfunctional system and don’t advocate ways of fixing it, you’re part of the problem.

Too often, government regulations protect failed ideas from competition. We need to subject those failed ideas to the forces of creative destruction, so that promising new ideas have a chance to thrive. Replacing our dysfunctional and counter-productive copyright system with a new copyright system that fosters innovation would be a good place to start.

As the one-year anniversary of the SOPA legislation approaches, I’m optimistic that significant copyright reform is possible. The failure of SOPA proved that a united movement can stop legislation, despite overwhelming odds and the support of powerful politicians and interest groups. A similar coalition can mobilize in favor of a sound copyright structure that provides incentives to content producers while allowing new industries to flourish.

Derek Khanna was a staffer for Senator Scott Brown (2010-2011) and then the House Republican Study Committee (2012), and he is currently a columnist and activist on technology issues.