Last week I spoke on a panel at the National Conference of State Legislators' conference entitled “Copyright and Theft in a Digital Age.” I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised at the title, since the conference took place in Nashville – ground zero for the music industry blaming digital technology and networks for their woes. But I have to admit I was a bit shocked at the description of the panel, which was this:
New technologies provide the opportunity for new kinds of crimes, especially in the entertainment world. The latest examples include internet pirating of music, movies, software and video, theft of Internet and cable services, and surreptitious use of camcorders to videotape movies and performances. The challenge for state and federal policymakers is to dtermine if current laws are sufficient to protect rights in a fast moving digital age.
I don't think I'd ever read such a negative, backward looking view of technology, so to open my talk, I decided to tell the audience how I might have written the description of the panel, which I would call: “Copyright and Technology: How Best to Balance Creativity, Innovation and Consumer Rights?”
New technologies provide the opportunity for new kinds of civic engagement, access to education, e-comerce, social networking, individual creativity and artistic expression free of big media gatekeepers. The latest examples include e-government, online distance education, MySpace, YouTube, iTunes and the millions of singers and songwriters who produce and sell their music online. The challenge for state and federal policymakers is to determine if current laws are sufficient to protect citizens' rights to engage in free expression and their rights as consumers to enjoy the digital media that they buy and use lawfully.
So what should a state legislator do about copyright and digital technology? Personally, I don't think they have much of a role, if any, but understanding that lawmakers want to legislate, I made two suggestions:
Pass laws that protect consumers against “copyright abuse” by corporate copyright holders, for example, a requirement that copyprotection on digital media be disclosed.
Pass laws that protect artists from anticompetitive practices of record companies, for example, a limitation on the length of personal services contracts (California exempted sound recordings from this 7 year limitation and efforts have been made to repeal that exemption).
My suggestions did not go down very well with Kumar Barve, the Majority Leader of the Maryland House of Delegates. He insisted that state legislators had to do “something” about the fact that it is easy to make digital copies of music and movies. When I asked him what consituency in Maryland he was trying to serve, he lectured me that the House of Delegates “does not make laws just for the people of Maryland.” Hmmm. His constituents might have something to say about that.