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July 27, 2013

On Thursday's copyright review hearing

 
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This morning, the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet held its second in a series of hearings that form the beginning of a review of current copyright law. And while the first hearing was largely comprised of copyright critics, today’s hearing featured those who make their livings and who are innovating new technologies based on the copyright system.

Along those lines, of particular interest was witness William Sherak, whose company handles the 3D conversion of blockbuster movies. In addition to getting committee members to don 3D glasses, Mr. Sherak pointed out that both the technology his company developed and the workers he employs are all dependent upon the copyright system.

Sparks briefly threatened but quickly fizzled when it became clear that Rep. Chaffetz was using leading questions to awkwardly steer the conversation to one of his pet issues: Championing Pandora’s attempt to weasel out of its royalty obligations for the music it streams. Otherwise, the hearing was pretty much a straightforward and helpful reminder to the committee of the important role copyright plays in not only incentivizing innovation, but also in facilitating distribution of creative content that consumers want and in which the United States leads the world.

Perhaps more entertaining was the conversation happening outside the hearing, on social media, as is increasingly the case. While most of those engaged on Twitter retweeted key member and witness quotations, some copyright critics used the occasion to float some of their pet complaints.

Several Twitter critics insisted that, while copyright no doubt has economic benefits, it also functions as “an instrument of control.”

But of course copyright involves control, and rightly so. Control is implied in all property rights. Without some degree of control, you cannot enter into contracts, you cannot license, and copyright becomes impotent—little more than a credit or an attribution. But a credit alone does not incentivize creation, innovation, and distribution of new works. Ownership always involves a degree of control.

Several others made the ridiculous assertion that copyright is used to “censor.” But as Sandra Aistars of the Copyright Alliance noted in her statement, copyright is “core to protecting our First Amendment rights of freedom of expression.” Copyright holders are champions of the First Amendment, have every incentive to see their work disseminated as widely as possible, and have no reason to censor anything. It’s a preposterous charge, manufactured by ideologues to create a false premise that copyright is somehow in tension with consumer interests.

The copyright review process can be a helpful occasion to update copyright law, to fill in some of the remaining gaps, and to address some of the critics’ claims. Hopefully, Chairman Goodlatte will be able to steer the process away from some of the baseless criticisms manufactured for ideological purposes.




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