Interested in balanced, user-friendly copyright law? Get ready to start voting Republican [updated below]

One of the most fascinating things about copyright is how it has largely been a non-partisan issue, particularly in the United States. Unlike pretty much every other public-policy issue in existence, you can’t predict how an American politician will vote on copyright based on party affiliation.

While that’s been the story up to now, I wonder if we’re on the verge of copyright becoming a partisan issue, with Democrats defending the content industries and pushing for increasingly stronger copyright (a.k.a. the status quo) and Republicans representing the interests of individual users and (this might be a bit of a stretch) tech companies.

The Republicans are (or should be) desperate for ideas and policies that actual American voters actually support. The 2012 election showed that they’re on the wrong side of pretty much every ideological and demographic issue. As Bloomberg’s Josh Barro puts it:

Any conceivable agenda that is likely to be effective in getting health care, jobs and higher wages in the hands of the American masses will be unconservative, at least on the terms by which most American conservatives define conservatism.

(h/t Ed Kilgore)

So it’s adapt or die time for the Republicans. (Take a moment to savor the irony.) What’s a Grand Old Party to do?

Well, there’s an issue out there that’s ripe for the taking that just happens to line up with key conservative principles such as the importance of well-defined property rights, individual liberty and economic prosperity. As Russell McOrmond has been saying for years, conservative should be very concerned about the way that copyright interferes with individuals’ property rights in goods they’ve legitimately acquired.

Here’s the conservative pitch: In every other area of private property, if you purchase something, you can do what you want with it. Copyright, and especially digital locks, keeps you from enjoying these property rights and allow others to control what you can do with your property. It is a monopoly power granted to creators but exercised by corporations who reap the majority of its benefits. The result? Less innovation, lower prosperity, and Amazon can delete books you’ve purchased with the flick of a switch.

And how about privacy? Digital technology has made everything easier to trace and control, and to tell who’s been downloading what. This is how you enforce copyright on the Internet. Conservative pitch: Why should the government allow a business monopoly to track what consumers read and watch, especially when it’s not clear that file sharing actually hurts the overall economy (see below)? Bonus points: Hollywood ain’t exactly overflowing with Republicans.

Heck, coming out for moderate copyright reform, or even reductions in the scope of protection (think: no special protection for digital locks, legal non-commercial file sharing) would place Republicans smack dab in the middle of the “reality-based community.” That’s not been an overly familiar place for them these past several years. Well, it turns out there’s a lot of empirical support for reigning in copyright protection. Pretty much every serious, non-industry-sponsored economic study of copyright protection going back at least to Arnold Plant’s key 1934 study of the book industry is at least skeptical about whether extending copyright protection provides society with any net economic benefits. Several studies confirm that file sharers (i.e., those who illegally download stuff) actually spend more on books, music and so on than non-file sharers. We even have a couple of good economists making a sound case that you don’t need intellectual property at all to spur the creation and dissemination of knowledge and culture.

From a partisan point of view, it won’t hurt that the Democrats can be easily tarred as supporting out-of-touch special interests in the entertainment industry that have spent the past decade suing the pants off of ordinary Americans. Vice President Joe Biden has been the Recording Industry Association of America and Motion Picture Association of America’s most prominent advocate in the Obama administration. (That said, a couple of the most prominent advocates for balanced copyright are Representative Zoe Lofgren and Senator Ron Wyden, both Democrats.)

It seems that at least some Republicans have recognized that a refocused copyright policy is either good policy or good politics. (Republican) Representative Darrell Issa, himself a tech millionaire, has emerged as the champion of this type of copyright policy and has positioned himself as a defender of an open Internet.

The biggest piece of evidence that Republicans are starting to catch on to the policy and political benefits of user-focused copyright comes courtesy of Mike Masnick at Techdirt, who reports that “the Republican Study Committee, which is the caucus for the House Republicans, [has] released an amazing document debunking various myths about copyright law and suggesting key reforms.” How good is the report? Manick’s article makes it seem like, after decades in the wilderness, he has finally glimpsed the promised land:

This document really is a watershed moment. Even if it does not lead to any actual legislation, just the fact that some in Congress are discussing how copyright has gone way too far and even looking at suggestions that focus on what benefits the public the most is a huge step forward from what we’ve come to expect.

[Update: The report has been withdrawn following pressure from the music and movie industries; see below.]

Copyright is no longer a special-interest-based issue, where the only players are big companies. The January 18, 2012, Internet blackout proved, there are tens of millions of voters who are very interested in copyright reform. Oh, and you can bet lots of them are young, too.

With that many votes up for grabs and their very existence on the line, the Republicans have everything to gain and nothing to lose by coming out strong in favour of user-focused copyright law. Don’t be surprised if, in four years, Republicans have re-branded themselves as the party of copyright sanity and digital freedom. Consider your vote accordingly.

[Update: Nov. 18, 7:30 a.m.: Well, it looks like the Republicans do have something to lose: The financial backing of the movie and music industries. As Techdirt and others have reported, that “watershed” Republican caucus report has been scrubbed out of existence after the MPAA and RIAA went “ballistic.” (Not completely: Here’s a copy of the report for your eternal viewing pleasure. Thanks, Dwayne Winseck!)

So what does this mean? First, it’s a reminder to me that I should never forget about the importance of money in U.S. politics, and that the music and movie industries have very, very important lobbies on Capitol Hill. The “user rights” lobby is nowhere near as well organized, and potential allies like the tech industries have their own agendas.

But the attempt to shove this report down the memory hole doesn’t change the underlying politics. The Republicans need a winning conservative issue and there are tens of millions of copyright votes potentially up for grabs. This voter interest is a new reality in U.S. copyright, and I don’t think it’s going away. I’m very curious to see what happens next.]

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