Commentary Magazine


Topic: copyright law

GOP’s Short-Lived Shift on Copyright Law

The Republican Study Committee, a conservative policy-focused organization in Congress, recently released a smart paper on copyright law that’s drawn some controversy. It was written by RSC staffer Derek Khanna (full disclosure: he is a college friend), and it makes the case that current copyright law does the opposite of what it was originally intended to do — instead of fostering innovation and intellectual growth, it’s hindering it.

The paper echoes reasonable arguments for copyright law reform that libertarians have been making for years. But shortly after it was published, it was mysteriously yanked from the RSC website, supposedly because it wasn’t properly reviewed.

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The Republican Study Committee, a conservative policy-focused organization in Congress, recently released a smart paper on copyright law that’s drawn some controversy. It was written by RSC staffer Derek Khanna (full disclosure: he is a college friend), and it makes the case that current copyright law does the opposite of what it was originally intended to do — instead of fostering innovation and intellectual growth, it’s hindering it.

The paper echoes reasonable arguments for copyright law reform that libertarians have been making for years. But shortly after it was published, it was mysteriously yanked from the RSC website, supposedly because it wasn’t properly reviewed.

“This Policy Brief presented one view among conservatives on U.S. copyright law. Due to an oversight in our review process, it did not account for the full range of perspectives among our members,” said an RSC spokesperson. “It was removed from the website to address that concern.”

What makes that explanation even stranger is that there hasn’t been any backlash against the paper from the right — nobody clamoring (at least publicly) that their “perspective” wasn’t given due consideration. In fact, the paper received only positive reviews from various corners of the conservative sphere, including David Brooks, Red State, Reason, AmCon, Glenn Reynolds, and Volokh

The only real pushback seems to be coming from Hollywood lobbyists and “paid advocates” for the telecom industry. ArsTechnica reported the RSC pulled the paper under lobbyist pressure (although one of the top lobby groups denied involvement).

If the RSC did cave to industry pressure, that would be unfortunate. Not because the GOP is missing an opportunity to capture the youth vote, or get “revenge” against Hollywood, or anything that conniving. But because it’s a shame when lobbyists who profit from bad laws are able to block opportunities for reform. Under current copyright law, works don’t enter the public domain until 70 years after the author’s death (for corporate authors, the timespan is 120 years after creation). Authors should own the exclusive rights to their work for some time, or there would be little incentive to create anything. But at what point does the incentive taper off? If you knew you would only own the copyright to your work for the next 50 years, as opposed to the next 120 years, would you any have less incentive to write a book or compose a song or publish a scientific research paper? For the vast majority of authors, that probably wouldn’t even factor into their decision — but it makes a big difference for the general public.

Reforming copyright law could give the public freer access to books, scientific papers, music and art decades earlier than they otherwise would have. It would encourage online libraries, where people could access literature and scientific research as it enters the public domain. It would make learning less costly. And it would support innovation by fostering a society where ideas are more accessible, and easier to build upon. As the RSC paper pointed out, this is the explicit constitutional purpose of copyright law — encouraging innovation and scientific advancement, not ensuring indefinite compensation for authors.

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