Academics, an attorney and an Internet entrepreneur gave the SXSW Interactive audience an earful on the problems caused by U.S. copyright law during the panel "Copyright & Disruptive Technologies" at the Austin Convention Center Sunday Afternoon. The hour-long discussion, moderated by Margot Kaminski, Executive Director of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, was fodder for a SXSW Interactive conference crowd that loves innovation and detests anything that stands in the way of innovation.
People on both sides of the SOPA/PIPA debate can probably agree that copyright law and enforcement ensnares some undeserving individuals and businesses. Attorney Andrew Bridges, a partner at Fenwick & West LLP, recovered the Dajaz1.com domain after the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) determined the New York-based hip-hop site had violated copyright law. ICE dropped the case after a year of secret requests for more time to file paperwork.
Businesses get entangled, too. Ben Huh, CEO of the successful Cheezburger Network, a network of 50 sites that gets an estimated 375 million page views a month, said he has became an activist in the SOPA/PIPA debate because his business is based on uploaded content that could be considered infringing. "The cost of tracking down the rights owner is a minimum of $300 to $500 [per image]-- if you're successful. I have 23 million images, and I'm one of the smaller [online businesses] out there."
Consumers are about to become entangled. The just-launched Copyright Alert System, implemented by major U.S. Internet service providers in conjunction with the RIAA and MPAA, contains mitigation measures that don't quite cut off an Internet subscriber's access but punish the user for alleged copyright infringements. This is problematic to people that value privacy and worry about large corporations being able to determine what is and is not copyright infringement. "Innovation on the Internet shouldn't require permission," said Wendy Seltzer, Policy Counsel to the World Wide Web Consortium and a Fellow with Yale Law School's Information Society Project.
Bridges had a suggestion to prevent record labels and movie studios from sending false-positive infringement notices: copyright owners lose protection under copyright law if they send six false infringement notices. The comments were met with loud applause. "It's really important that we protect the rights of really good looking people in this society," Bridges said facetiously of the power of the entertainment industry in the U.S.
A few things were missing from the discussion about the new Copyright Alert System, however. Under the current scheme -- although it's easy to imagine it being expanded -- content creators will look for copyright infringement only on peer-to-peer networks. Copyright infringement in other forms will not be monitored. Seltzer and others also failed to mention the lack of penalties imposed by France's anti-piracy system, Hadopi, although it was singled out as an example of copyright protection gone awry. From 2009 through 2012, Hadopi has resulted in 1.25 million warnings but only 2 convictions. Whether or not Hadopi is flawed in concept, it does not have many repeat offenders, according to numbers released by France's Ministry of Justice.
These kinds of panels tend to emit the feeling that Washington D.C. is an immovable object. Panelist Derek Khanna is proof that Washington is stubborn but can change. In November Khanna was a Republic Study Committee staffer who wrote a paper that proposed radical changes to U.S. copyright law -- and got fired. Khanna is now a visiting fellow at Yale Law's Information Society Project and writes about government and technology for The Atlantic.
Khanna has had some success with the issue of cell phone unlocking (called "the most ridiculous law of 2013" in this article). An effort by Khanna and entrepreneur Sina Khanifar led to White House of cell phone unlocking earlier this month.
But radical changes to copyright, although embraced in Austin in this time of March, aren't going to fly in Washington. Kannah explained the Washington D.C. mindset this way: to Congress, piracy is a threat and costs American jobs, so making anti-piracy efforts stronger will help secure more American jobs. Changing that storyline -- by reducing the term of copyright, for example -- would wreak havoc with American security.
Note that the panel took place on a Sunday. The Interactive portion of the conference runs Friday to Tuesday while the Music portion runs Tuesday through Sunday. There is a single day of overlap. In years past panels on Tuesday have tended to bring together varying viewpoints on technology and content. Just as this panel fell squarely in the Interactive portion of the conference, its discussion produced no overlap of opinions. Comments were thought provoking, intelligent and spirited, but they were hardly balanced.