This article by Josh Peterson was published by Watchdog.org, a Franklin Center website.
WASHINGTON — Nearly two years after losing his job with the House Republican Study Committee over a controversial copyright paper, Derek Khanna now represents one side of a split among conservatives over copyright reform.
Conservatives are split over how the importance and implications of current U.S. copyright law in the smartphone era.
On Friday, Khanna — now a tech policy consultant — debated Phil Kerpen, president of the free market advocacy nonprofit American Commitment, over what the Founding Fathers believed about copyright and whether it is protected by the Constitution as a property right.
At debate w/ @kerpen on copyright policy, is copyright natural right? As our Founders told us, the Supreme Court has made clear: answer = no
— Derek Khanna (@DerekKhanna) September 5, 2014
For Khanna, current copyright law, which grants the author rights to their work for the duration of their life plus 70 years after their death, provides a government-sanctioned monopoly over the rights of a creative work. That monopoly stifles creative innovation, and is contrary to what the founders intended.
Copyright law first passed after the Constitution was ratified granted copyright to the author for 14 years, with the option to renew it once more for another 14 years.
“The thing is the founders had copyright for books, maps and charts, that’s it,” Khanna told audience members.
“They didn’t allow copyright for written music, they didn’t allow copyright for art, they (didn’t allow it) for sculptures,” he said.
Policymakers’ sparring online and on Capitol Hill is not without context; debates over the current copyright regime’s implications for new technologies have been raging for more than a decade.
Khanna was one of several activists pushing for Congress to allow smartphone users to unlock their devices, which had been previously banned by the Librarian of Congress, and switch to other services.
While advocacy for strict copyright enforcement is associated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s interests, broadcasters also benefit from current law.
The Supreme Court, for example, ruled in June that Boston-based start-up Aereo violated broadcasters’ copyrights by capturing broadcasters’ airwaves and streaming the content over the Internet.
The music and movie industries also depend on copyright enforcement to protect their own revenue streams, the most recent example being a fight between Disney and music producer Deadmau5 (pronounced “dead mouse”) over alleged copyright violations.
For Kerpen, however, to reform copyright law threatens private property protections. If copyright is simply a government-granted monopoly over intangible and literary works, that same logic could be extended to physical property like land and cattle.
“The property rights view is the decentralized, free-market, individual rights-oriented view and I believe the correct one,” Kerpen told audience members.
“No property is more clearly a person’s own than the product of his or her own mind,” he said, stating that protecting property rights were “why governments were instituted in the first place.”
Many of the copyright reform advocacy organizations are also the pro-net neutrality groups funded by left-wing foundations aiming to turn the Internet into a public utility.
The progressive Ford Foundation, for example, granted $200,000 to Creative Commons for “(general) support to increase access to education, science, data, culture, and governmental and philanthropic works.”
Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization co-founded in 2001 by campaign finance reform and pro-net neutrality activist Larry Lessig, provides authors with licenses that help to legally modify the copyright of their work to better suit their needs.
Public Knowledge, a major player in the pro-net neutrality movement, was founded during the same year with the help of the now-defunct Center for the Public Domain to promote a “vibrant public domain.”
But the dividing line between protecting or weakening copyright doesn’t fall cleanly between big business and nonprofit interests.
Google’s business model, Kerpen pointed out, depends on “monetizing other people’s content and has been putting an enormous amount of muscle into undermining copyright.”
The number of lobbying reports Google filed in 2011 on copyright, patent and trademark issues was second only to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, surpassing even both Comcast and the Recording Industry Association of America, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Each year since 2012, Google has filed the most lobbying reports on intellectual property issues out of any company or trade association.
“And so I actually think that right now most of the corporate financial lobbying muscle is actually on the side of weakening copyright enforcement,” he said, “and if you don’t have meaningful enforcement it really doesn’t matter what the copyright term is because the effective term is 60 seconds, not 50 years.”
Contact Josh Peterson at email@example.com. Follow Josh on Twitter at @jdpeterson
Josh Peterson is a Washington, D.C.-based tech reporter for the Franklin Center’s Watchdog.org news site. Peterson previously spent two years at The Daily Caller covering tech and telecom regulatory policy as the publication’s Tech Editor. During that time, he focused on cybersecurity, privacy, civil liberties and intellectual property issues, and in addition to covering political protest movements. Prior to joining The Daily Caller in October 2011, Peterson spent time in D.C. researching and reporting on technology issues in internship roles with Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center, Broadband Breakfast and The National Journalism Center, and The Heritage Foundation. Peterson has a B.A. in Religion and Philosophy from Hillsdale College. He is also a musician and music enthusiast, and an avid martial artist.