GOP flip-flops over supporting digital copyright reforms

House Republican Study Committee embraces EFF-style digital copyright reforms, then disavows its own report. RIAA says it didn't ask the GOP group to yank the paper from its Web site.

Activists protest the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act earlier this year.
Activists protest the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act earlier this year. CNET

In an bizarre policy flip-flop, a group of more than 160 House Republicans appeared to endorse extensive digital copyright reform on Friday, then disavowed its position the next day.

The House Republican Study Committee, an influential collection of conservatives that tends to pull the House leadership to the right, published a set of recommendations that could have been penned by Larry Lessig and the Electronic Frontier Foundation: expanded fair use rights, lower penalties for "willful" infringement, and dramatically abbreviated copyright terms.

That seemed to be more evidence that Republicans had become copyright skeptics, especially since most of the lobbying for expanding the law over the last few decades had come from Hollywood, which happened to funnel millions of dollars to President Obama's re-election bid. CNET reported in February that the Stop Online Piracy Act represented a new beginning in GOP misgivings about copyright legislation.

But then the 9-page policy brief vanished from the RSC's Web site yesterday. Paul Teller, the RSC's executive director, did not respond to a request for comment today from CNET. But he told The American Conservative magazine that the brief "was published without adequate review" and must "be approached with all facts and viewpoints in hand."

A source close to the RSC, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told CNET today that the brief -- which has been mirrored here -- would likely not be republished in a revised or reworked form. It was, for a policy brief, a bit incendiary; one section said "copyright violates nearly every tenet of laissez-faire capitalism," and another warns that today's legal system "is seen by many as a form of corporate welfare that hurts innovation and hurts the consumer."

Multiple news reports attributed the RSC's volte-face to pressure from lobbyists for the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, which have lobbied for decades to expand copyright law and were the principal forces behind SOPA and Protect IP. An MPAA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

The RIAA did not respond to questions about what conversations, if any, it had with the RSC. But Mitch Glazier, a senior executive vice president at the association, told CNET:

We appreciate that the Republican Study Committee clarified that the policy brief did not meet RSC standards for review by member offices and staff. While we never asked that the brief be removed from the RSC Web site, we understand that a decision was made to do so to allow for the appropriate process that would have otherwise taken place before issuing. Appropriately, it appears the author is now distributing the work personally so that those who are interested may still have access to it, and that it is no longer erroneously being represented as an RSC view. Debate is important. So is appropriate attribution of views. We appreciate that there are many thoughtful perspectives on ensuring that the copyright laws adequately protect creativity and culture while fostering innovation, and we look forward to an ongoing dynamic dialogue about these vital issues.

Whatever the reason, it's an embarrassing situation for the RSC, especially if the group had hoped to use its copyright skepticism to appeal to younger, tech-savvy voters who mobilized to defeat SOPA and Protect IP early this year -- and overwhelmingly, at least for now, vote Democratic.

"Why did the RSC retract its awesome policy paper on copyright?" asked Patrick Ruffini, a Republican consultant and former campaign aide to George W. Bush, on Twitter. He had previously said: "The thing that makes a pro-tech GOP such a no-brainer is that there is no constituency on the other side. Hollywood = left."

A splintered pro-copyright alliance
Ever since GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole claimed that Hollywood produced "nightmares of depravity" that coarsened American culture and made "deviancy" mainstream, movie studios and record labels have enjoyed a spectacularly uneasy relationship with the Republican party.

Copyright has been the exception to that strife: since the late 1990s, Hollywood-backed proposals to expand copyright law--the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Induce Act, the Pro-IP Act--have all been embraced, or at least not opposed, by Republicans.

The protests against SOPA and Protect IP that involved Wikipedia, Craigslist, Google, and millions of Americans has finally splintered that alliance -- by making politicians like Rep. Lamar Smith, Hollywood's favorite Republican and the author of SOPA, more of a liability than an asset.

During a primary debate, Mitt Romney and the three other Republican presidential candidates all slammed SOPA. Rep. Ron Paul noted that he was the first House Republican to oppose the bill, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich quipped: "Well, you're asking a conservative about the economic interests of Hollywood."

Obama's election-year dilemma -- and this may be one reason why Silicon Valley's ardor for the president has cooled since 2008 -- was that southern California is a more reliable source of Democratic Party funding than northern California. DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and Warner Brothers chairman Barry Meyer were Obama's top "bundlers," raising more than $4 million for his 2012 campaign, and some film and music moguls reportedly threatened to cut off funds if Obama distanced himself from the Hollywood-backed bills. Approximately three quarters of the supporters of Protect IP were Democrats.

Instead of sharply criticizing the bills, as his rivals had, Obama tried to finesse his position in a Google+ hangout in January, saying that everyone should "come together and work with us" to enact legislation.

"Candidly, those who count on quote 'Hollywood' for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who's going to stand up for them when their job is at stake," Hollywood's top lobbyist, former Democratic senator Chris Dodd, said on Fox News a few days after the White House raised questions the effects of SOPA and Protect IP.

By April, the Obama administration appeared to have taken Dodd's warning to heart. A White House report echoed Hollywood's talking points by calling for new SOPA-like legislation, saying "we believe that new legislative and non-legislative tools are needed to address offshore infringement."

Featured Video