A bill, H.R. 4279 introduced in the House by Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Congressman Howard Berman (D-Calif.), has given everyone interested in workable copyright reform for the digital age an opportunity to get into the holiday spirit and start talking about compromise.
Everyone, regardless of the side they take on this hotly contested issue, believes that artists, innovators, and other copyright holders deserve to be compensated for their work, and that current copyright laws need to be updated. There is a middle ground. And it's essential to our economy that we find it.
Copyright laws must reflect the realities of the digital age, in which consumers can legally enjoy the content they purchase, and artists and innovators can use technology to create new content and new revenue without the threat of government restrictions or costly lawsuits. Instead of forcing consumers to buy a new copy of the same movie for each device on which they want to watch it (movie studios argue that existing copyright law bars loading a DVD you own onto your own iPod, even for personal use), our copyright laws should empower consumers to make full use of lawfully acquired digital content, which will drive demand for even more innovation.
So the question then becomes, what do we do about it? In this new digital world, we need to find a way to compensate artists for their work, but protect the free flow of information, ideas, and creativity. Our economy is powered by technology, and with more than half of American homes equipped with broadband, and the nation transitioning to digital television, consumer demand for digital content is exploding.
Let's be clear, H.R. 4279--named the Enhancements to Civil Intellectual Property Laws Act of 2007--is not a panacea for all that is wrong with copyright law. It falls well short of the massive overhaul needed to undo the damage inflicted by the. Instead of empowering digital media by promoting innovation, that antiquated copyright law has imposed massive statutory damages that deter the very creativity that are supposed to promote.
What H.R. 4279 offers, if we are very lucky, is the beginning of a meaningful conversation.
Fortunately, we don't have to start this conversation from scratch. Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge in a recent speech at Boston University suggested replacing the "I sue you, you sue me" approach to copyright law with a rational, reasonable series of policy steps: fair use reform; limits on secondary liability; protections against copyright abuse; fair and accessible licensing; orphan works reform; and notice of technological and contractual restrictions on digital media.
These modest changes acknowledge that an entirely new copyright regime that addresses the practical realities of the digital world and user-generated content is probably not going to happen anytime soon, while also recognizing that the "idea economy" is our future. From a policy standpoint, eliminating statutory damages and codifying consumer fair-use rights are essential changes that are easy and make sense, but more importantly, they will have a significant impact on our day-to-day lives.
We can take care right now to ensure that our laws allow the next innovation to be born. In the world of copyright law and digital policy, in the spirit of the holidays, we should get together and agree that it is better to engage in productive conversations and pass reasonable reform than to continue fighting over long settled issues with no end in sight. The House Judiciary Committee understands the importance of this bill as well as anyone: not as the perfect solution for copyright reform, but as a symbol of progress and the possibility that we can someday agree on vitally needed changes.
After all, 'tis the season for hope.