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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Copyright Reform as a Conservative Issue

Posted By on Tue, Feb 12, 2013 at 10:45 AM

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It was so refreshing to read the following in GigaOM:

Unfortunately, for now, the debate over how to fix copyright remains dominated by industry lobbyists on one side and piracy apologists on the other. The result is an unhealthy stalemate in which those who propose a middle ground risk being labeled as a thief by the industry or as a stooge by its critics.

And so deflating to read the next paragraph:

The copyright debate is not entirely controlled by the ideologues, of course. In the last decade, scholars and journalists (Lawrence Lessig, Bill Patry, Cory Doctorow and Mike Masnick to name a few) have made eloquent arguments about reforming the law.

All of those scholars and journalists can be fairly categorized as ideologues -- or at least advocates. They aren't "piracy apologists," but to varying degrees, they all tend to gloss over the piracy problem as if it doesn't matter much. That the copyright industries are so clueless in the ways they go about fighting piracy doesn't mean they don't have a case to make -- they're just very, very bad at making it. That said, those scholars and journalists are more right than wrong, their arguments are sometimes eloquent, and they all approach the problem as a matter of equity, whereas the copyright industries approach it as a matter of profits.

The article's thesis is that conservatives are starting to come around on the piracy issue. Maybe so. But both sides of the copyright debate are represented by both Democrats and Republicans. It's one of those issues that fall outside the frame of our current national debate over the role of government (like, whether it should exist or not) and is driven largely by lobbying power and the attempts to ameliorate that power through public pressure -- and some lobbying. There's no real philosophy or political justification behind Congress's decision to extend copyrights from 28 years to the life of the author plus 70 years, or to seriously consider laws like SOPA and PIPA (which were defeated). It's just a matter of politicians doing the bidding of their corporate benefactors.

GigaOM's Jeff John Roberts argues that there's a conservative case to be made for copyright reform. And he's right. He cites several conservative arguments for it from the likes of Judge Richard Posner and The American Conservative magazine. But one can cite a whole bunch of issues on which conservatives drop their opposition to an overreaching government when it's politically expedient or when it aids their corporate sponsors: abortion, the death penalty, gay marriage, pot legalization, subsidies for the fossil-fuels industry, etc.

The complicating factor is that the copyright lobby is made up largely of the entertainment industry, big publishers, and the mainstream news media. Those industries of course make up the "cultural elite" that the right likes to use as a bogeyman to stir up its base. Conservatives get money from those industries, too, and are just as exposed as liberals are to their lobbying pressure.

Copyright reform won't happen thanks to a victory of either liberal or conservative philosophy -- it will happen only when Congress realizes that the laws we have (and even moreso, some of the ones being proposed) are untenable.

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Dan Mitchell

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