All of Us are Affected, but Few of Us are Represented at Upcoming Copyright Hearings
All of Us are Affected, but Few of Us are Represented at Upcoming Copyright Hearings
All of Us are Affected, but Few of Us are Represented at Upcoming Copyright Hearings

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    The witness list for upcoming copyright hearings raise significant questions about who the subcommittee is really listening to. 

    House IP Subcommittee recently announced
    its plans
     to hold its next two hearings in its series on copyright
    reform. The first, to be held this Thursday, July 25th, is entitled “Innovation
    in America: the Role of Copyrights
    .” The next, to be held next
    Thursday, August 1, is as-yet untitled, but will apparently be about the role
    of technology in innovation.

    announcement raises a few questions for the upcoming hearings. Why are they
    being structured this way? What, exactly, does the subcommittee hope to learn
    from the witnesses in them? And how will that information contribute to the
    cause of copyright reform?

    Copyright and its Interests

    of the first questions about the pair of hearings is: why are they organized
    this way? The implication has been that this week’s hearing is meant to
    showcase the contributions of creators like authors, musicians, filmmakers, and
    others to innovation—a chance to celebrate the creative efforts of America. The
    week after, it seems, technologists get their turn.

    this framing has two big potential problems baked into it. The first is the
    idea that authors, musicians, and filmmakers somehow embody
    “copyright” or the concept of copyright law. That’s just not the case.
    While their interests are certainly a major part of the law, they don’t
    represent copyright law any more than criminals represent criminal law, or dead
    people represent trusts and estates. Copyright law exists to balance the
    interests of authors with the interests of the general public, and it affects
    absolutely everyone. Assuming that creators are the only people it’s meant to
    consider does it a grave disservice.

    the witness list we have for this next hearing displays a more serious problem:
    there’s a dearth of actual artists being represented. Even though copyright law
    is meant to benefit the public first, and artists second, it is these two
    groups—authors and their audiences—who the law is supposed to care about. It’s
    created to benefit them, not the people who act as middlemen between them.

    yet constantly, the people who come to Washington and purport to speak for
    artists represent instead the people who buy rights from artists, or market and
    merchandise their works. It’s the record labels, broadcasters, and publishers
    who keep showing up, not the composers, performers, and authors. Or it’s even
    people who buy works and copyrights from artists and then sell them to the
    public. Not that there’s anything wrong with that-reselling things (including
    copyrights and licenses) is part of the business of copyrights. It’s just that
    that’s a means to an end, not an end in itself.

    And when people do show up on actual artists’ behalf, it
    will be large trade associations speaking, not creators themselves. Creators of
    copyrighted works aren’t just the people who have their own trade associations
    and lobbyists; they’re anyone who makes creative works. That includes people
    ranging from individual bloggers and podcasters to video bloggers with millions of subscribers, producers of elaborate
    web video content and singer-songwriters with hundreds of thousands of fans. Are their voices going to be present in this
    debate? Or will we be hearing from the same industry lobbyists?


    there’s another hearing next week, and that apparently is going to feature
    witnesses talking about the contributions of technology to innovation.  So maybe we’re getting a balanced pair
    of panels—one featuring (some) creators, the other featuring technologists.
    Isn’t that balance what we’re after?

    no, it’s not. There’s a persistent tendency, particularly in Washington, to
    look at the issue of copyright reform as an issue of Entertainment vs. Tech—one
    industry against another. It’s particularly easy for Congress to think of
    things this way because that’s who lobbies them on these issues the most—it’s
    big industry groups who have the money to hire lobbyists to visit Congress and
    bend their ears on a regular basis about their particular perspective on these

    that leaves out the vast majority of us whose interests aren’t represented
    either by the entertainment industry or the technology industry. Not everyone
    makes or sells music; not everyone makes or sells online services. But everyone
    reads, listens to music, and uses the Internet. All of us, as readers,
    listeners, and viewers, are affected by copyright law, and it is the interests
    of audiences that must be represented in discussions on how to change it. So
    far, that’s not happening here.

    to the Status Quo

    So what can we expect from the hearing?
    Without seeing the witnesses’ testimony yet, it’s hard to say. But if the
    objective of this week’s hearing is to promote all the wonderful things that
    these witnesses do right now; and next week’s hearing is the chance for tech
    companies to brag about their achievements, then what does this mean for
    reforming copyright law? If we’re supposed to have a love-fest about the state
    of their respective parts of their industries, isn’t the implication that
    everything is fine and dandy? Because we know it’s not.

    As much as people can accomplish with
    our current laws and business practices, it’s never entirely clear when people
    are succeeding because of a particular provision, or despite it. Would artists
    make more and better works if we had a copyright term of life plus 71 years,
    instead of life plus 70? Would we face an impoverished artistic landscape if we
    cut that to life plus 69 years, or 50?

    The status quo that we face has been
    the result of lobbying on the part of big entertainment companies, with inputs
    coming from other industries as the conversation moved forward through the
    decades. Broadcasters, cable companies, then ISPs, then big Internet companies
    have, in more recent years, exercised their influence on the process. But those
    voices aren’t the voices of audiences, of users, of educators and others, who
    are often the ones harmed most by the shortcomings of the status quo. It’s
    certainly important to listen to entertainment companies and technology
    companies in the copyright reform process. But it’s downright essential to
    listen to the public.

    Original image by Flickr user (and our friend!) tvol.