Copyright Reform, Peer Progressives, and the New GOP

It’s been a fascinating few days in the politics of information.

Late in the day last Friday, the House Republican Study Committee released a report that took a fresh look (for American major political parties) at copyright reform, which has since set off a firestorm.

The report addresses three common misconceptions about copyright:

  1. The purpose of copyright is to compensate the creator of the content
    (No, the purpose is to incentivize the production of creative works)
  2. Copyright is free market capitalism at work
    (Actually, it’s a form of government subsidized monopoly)
  3. The current copyright legal regime leads to the greatest innovation and productivity
    (Actually, the current regime stifles many aspects of modern innovation and productivity, and leads to rent-seeking and economic drag)

Then lists a handful of practical problems with today’s copyright regime:

  • Retarding the creation of a robust DJ/Remix industry;
  • Hampering scientific inquiry;
  • Stifling the creation of a public library;
  • Discouraging added-value industries;
  • Penalizing legitimate journalism and oversight.

And finally goes on to suggest four major reforms that would improve the situation:

  1. Reform Statutory damages
    Under current law, damages are generally applied by statute (not by actual damages), leading to typical requests for $150,000 per infringement of a copyrighted work.  This is out of touch with the reality of actual damages, clogs up the court system, and as Khanna suggests: “the idea that your iPod could make you liable for a billion dollars in damages is excessive”.
  2. Expand fair use
    While the US has fairly generous fair use provisions relative to elsewhere in the world, it’s still not kept pace with todays technology (copying as part of everyday management of digital files) or culture (remix).
  3. Punish false copyright claims
    Under today’s laws, infringing a rights holder’s copyright (i.e., by copying or sharing a file without permission) is severely punished, while incorrectly violating someone’s lawful use of content (like when the DNC livestream was taken down — incorrectly — for using copyrighted music) is completely unpunishable.  This is ridiculous and unfair.
  4. Limit copyright term
    Khanna suggests a reduction in the term of copyright, which — for those who don’t follow this space — has grown from the constitutional provision of 14 years (renewable for another 14 years if the author was alive) to the current system of lifetime of the author plus 70 years.  The latest extension, in 1998, has been dubbed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, as it was timed with the impending expiration of Disney’s copyright of the original Steamboat Willie film.

For folks who have followed the copyright debate, none of these ideas are new.  What is new is hearing them from the official research arm of a major political party in the US.

Not surprisingly, the report received immediate praise from many in the tech community, who have grown increasingly frustrated with the state of copyright law in the US and its incompatibility with digital culture and modern innovation.

Perhaps more interestingly, the report was also hailed by members of the Republican party, who see this as one of the key issues for the future of the party — one that can help them re-connect with a younger generation that has the web in their blood (and therefore has a very different conception of content ownership and the right to remix).  Here is a tweet from influential republican strategist Patrick Ruffini:

And then, in a move that was not at all surprising, the RSC retracted the report, less than 24 hours later and reportedly under pressure from copyright industry lobbyists.

All of this raises a question we have been asking for some time now: who will be the party of the Internet Generation?

Our view (and I’ll get to who “we” is in a second) is that the internet — and network-based solutions powered by it — have caused a substantial mind shift in young people.  The Internet Generation simultaneously understand the importance of community-driven solutions and non-economic forms of production, and also have an aversion to top-down, bureaucratic regulation.  Neither the ideology of the left nor the right fits.  The “we” I’m referring to is the group that Steven Johnson dubs the “Peer Progressives” — a group that believes in networks, markets, open platforms and collective action.  My colleague Albert Wenger has written a fair bit about the idea.

So, another way to ask the question above is: who in America will adopt the Peer Progressive agenda?  Our view is that whoever does, will — by using the lens of network-based solutions — be both most effective at solving our biggest problems AND most effective at attracting the Internet Generation to its ranks.

In today’s Times, David Brooks has an opinion piece on The Conservative Future, in which he teases out some of the tensions facing conservative politics, outlines several sub movements, and specifically mentions the RSC report and it’s author, Derek Khanna:

Rising star Derek Khanna wrote a heralded paper on intellectual property rights for the House Republican Study Committee that was withdrawn by higher-ups in the party, presumably because it differed from the usual lobbyist-driven position.


Since Nov. 6, the G.O.P. has experienced an epidemic of open-mindedness. The party may evolve quickly. If so, it’ll be powerfully influenced by people with names like Reihan, Ramesh, Yuval and Derek Khanna.

It will be interesting to see if the GOP does try to become the party of Peer Progressives and the Internet Generation.  This question is completely up for grabs right now — I’d say the Dems have a leg up on social issues, but they’ve got a long way to go on understanding the Internet; and both the Republicans and Libertarians have some natural alignments but some big disconnects. This will be a really interesting story to watch play out, and see who ultimately finds the new center (which isn’t really at the center, but perhaps on a slightly different dimension).

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