Anticipating Today’s Hearing on Copyright Reform

In late April, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) announced he intended to tackle copyright reform over the summer. Later today, the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Intellectual Property will hold its first hearing to address the subject, entitled “A Case Study for Consensus Building: The Copyright Principles Project.”

Today’s hearing will be worth watching, and could mark the beginning of efforts to enact meaningful reforms to our copyright system.

Congress has seemed reluctant to tackle copyright issues since the widespread blowback it received in 2011 and 2012 over SOPA and PIPA, controversial copyright legislation that many argued went too far to enforce copyright protections.

Already there’s been a great deal of speculation as to how the Judiciary Committee will approach copyright reform. Mike Masnick at Techdirt, who extensively covered the SOPA / PIPA bills, expressed cautious optimism about these hearings, and saw the subcommittee’s selection of witnesses for this first hearing as a promising sign that it wants to handle reform in a prudent manner.

Still, there has been a certain level of skepticism about the hearing. Mark Hachman at ReadWriteWeb expressed concern that Chairman Goodlatte’s past support for SOPA and CISPA means the Judiciary Committee as a whole will be unable to strike the right balance between ensuring compensation for copyright holders and ensuring innovation in new technologies and services continues, and will favor the copyright community’s interests over others.

David Lowery, a musician of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven fame, wrote in Politico that he fears the views of the actual content creators will be ignored in this hearing. He argued that the perspective of the artists is crucial to meaningfully addressing problems in the copyright system and developing solutions to them, adding that he expects Chairman Goodlatte to include that community in future hearings.

There have also been calls for the subcommittee to not lose sight of the public’s importance during these hearings. Public Knowledge’s Sherwin Siy said that while the organization lauds the Judiciary Committee for addressing copyright reform, copyright law “can often be a barrier[] to everyday individuals’ ordinary uses of media,” and that Congress should “work to balance the interests of artists with those of their audiences and the public in general.”

While this is only the first in a series of hearings on copyright reform, concerns that Congress will ignore the views of the content industry, the tech community, or the general public are to be expected. No doubt we can expect to hear more from all sides as the Judiciary Committee continues its work on the issue.

Indeed, despite concerns about Congress’s ability to address copyright matters in a balanced way, Chairman Goodlatte’s reform effort could prove to be a positive step. Instead of rushing headlong into another effort to pass legislation (as some, including us, might argue was the case with SOPA), the subcommittee is taking a look at how the current copyright system is functioning, what is working well, what isn’t, and where there might be some areas of agreement so meaningful reform can occur. Chairman Goodlatte said that the goal of these hearings “will be to determine whether the copyright laws are still working in the digital age to reward creativity and innovation.”

Chairman Goodlatte and his subcommittee will have assistance from other quarters as well. On May 2, the National Academy of Sciences Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy (STEP) published a report entitled “Copyright in the Digital Era: Building Evidence For Policy.” Although the report was not designed to give recommendations to Congress, it is aimed at identifying data lawmakers need to make informed policy decisions. But the report makes clear that we need much more data about how the copyright system operates in practice to identify areas that need work and being devising solutions.

Given Chairman Goodlatte’s stated desire to learn rather than quickly advance a legislative agenda, today’s hearing should be a good starting point for addressing copyright reform issues.

Testifying before the subcommittee are Jon Baumgarten (former General Counsel of the U.S. Copyright Office), Laura Gasaway (UNC Law School Professor), Daniel Gervais (Vanderbilt Law School Professor), Pamela Samuelson (UC Berkeley School of Law Professor), and Jule Sigall (Assistant General Counsel for Copyright at Microsoft). All five witnesses are also members of the Copyright Principles Project, an effort launched in 2007 to bring together copyright practitioners, academics, and stakeholders to identify possible areas of agreement on how to improve the copyright system. In 2010 the Copyright Principles Project issued a report outlining 25 recommendations for reform, including encouraging registration of copyrights (not a requirement under current law), increasing the Copyright Offices technical and economic expertise, and a number of suggestions relating to the award of damages in infringement cases.

The hearing will begin at 2 pm – you can watch here.

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