Reforming copyright

A policy memo released and then quickly withdrawn Friday by the Republican Study Committee, an influential group of about 150 conservative members of Congress, is generating a lot of buzz in the tech blogosphere, both for the substance of the memo and for the abrupt manner in which the RSC disowned it.

The nine-page paper¬†purports to debunk what it calls three “myths” about copyright and offers a series of recommendation for reforming the current system, including dramatically shortening the length of copyright protection, expanding fair use and punishing “false” copyright claims. Its withdrawal, by RSC executive director Paul Teller, quickly sparked conspiracy theories about the long arm of the RIAA ¬†or MPAA “getting to” the RSC leadership and exerting pressure to repudiate the memo. In a statement announcing the withdrawal, Teller said the paper “was published without adequate review with the RSC” and failed to meet the group’s “standard.”

Who knows? But there was ample reason for RSC to be embarrassed by the episode. The memo itself is a travesty — a woolly headed and shabbily written rehashing of old debates in copyright law and scholarship as if they were new and had never been considered before by policymakers. The memo’s author, RSC staffer Derek S. Khanna, obviously has little knowledge of the actual law or its history, to say nothing of the United States’ obligations under various international copyright treaties to which it is signatory. And for a purported pro-market conservative he demonstrates a pretty shaky grasp of the market mechanisms at the heart of U.S. copyright law. (Copyright does not “violate nearly every tenet of laissez-faire capitalism,” as Khanna claims. It’s a response to market failure and substitutes market mechanisms for direct patronage — the primary “business model” for creators prior to the 18th Century.)

That doesn’t mean the memo is of no interest, however. Insofar as the defeat of SOPA has helped put copyright reform on the political agenda in Washington, the fact that some substantial constituency clearly exists within the GOP for a fairly radical rethink of copyright law is significant. Khanna may not know what he’s talking about, but he clearly isn’t speaking just for himself.