March 26, 2013

US copyright chief calls for complete overhaul


Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante

It’s difficult to pretend that the US copyright system is in good shape, or even particularly useful in its current incarnation.


Although the full act has not been reformed since 1976, plenty of additions have been tacked on. This includes the contentious bill designed to address the changes

caused by the internet, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), but even that Act was created in 1996. The law is so dated that the former Register of Copyrights Barbara Ringer, who worked on the 1976 revision, subsequently dismissed it as “good 1950 copyright law.”

Last week, the current Register of Copyrights, Maria Pallante, appeared before the US House of Representatives and emphatically called for an overhaul. She began,

“My message is simple. The law is showing the strain of its age and requires your attention. As many have noted, authors do not have effective protections, good faith businesses do not have clear roadmaps, courts do not have sufficient direction, and consumers and other private citizens are increasingly frustrated. The issues are numerous, complex, and interrelated, and they affect every part of the copyright ecosystem, including the public at large…I think it is time for Congress to think about the next great copyright act, which will need to be more forward thinking and flexible than before.”

Anne Elizabeth Moore in Al Jazeera writes that Pallante’s desire for reform is not only possible, but desperately needed. She says, “as a means to protect independent cultural producers, in other words, US copyrights are downright laughable.”

In recognition of the magnitude of the task, Pallante suggested in her speech that everything should be on the table, from the first sale doctrine, to orphan works, to questions over the mass digitization of books.

Pallente seems determined, and according to Greg Sandoval at The Verge, the House subcommittee that oversees intellectual property and the internet immediately scheduled a meeting to discuss Pallante’s recommendations.

But as Sandoval also notes, any attempt at an overhaul would be a gargantuan task. Even more than 1996 when the DMCA was first passed, and infinitely more than 1976, anyone reforming the law today would have to contend with hugely powerful companies with invested interests, from Google to AT&T. “One of the biggest hurdles facing any copyright rewrite is that legal scholars say significant changes to copyright rules typically occur during calm periods, when the major stakeholders aren’t at odds,” he writes. “At the intersection of copyright and the web, the environment is more akin to a legal cage match, and copyright rules are increasingly affecting the lives of everyday Americans.”

Pallante’s call for reform is desperately needed, but is unlikely to be met with swift, unequivocal action. Recall  late last year when the Republican Study Committee promptly fired a staffer, Derek Khanna, when he authored a smart white paper suggesting various avenues for copyright reform. Khanna’s fate was guaranteed when Hollywood and music industry lobbyists hit the phones to their Congressmen to protest the memo.

In other words, don’t hold your breath.

Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.