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Copyright reform unlikely, advocates say

Both supporters of copyright law and the "copyleft" are skeptical Congress can resolve the complex copyright issues of a digital era.

Stephanie Condon Staff writer, CBSNews.com
Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.
Stephanie Condon
3 min read

Opinionated panelists representing both copyright advocates and the "copyleft" traded jabs Wednesday at a Washington conference. Stephanie Condon/CNET Networks

WASHINGTON--With a new administration and a Democratic Congress, now is the time to overhaul copyright law, advocates for reform said Wednesday--but the complex nature of the issue makes copyright legislation nearly as unrealistic as ever.

Representatives of songwriters and the recording industry faced off against open Internet advocates at the Future of Music Coalition's Policy Day here in Washington, demonstrating the entrenched divisions that remain within Democratic constituencies over copyright issues.

While the public interest group Public Knowledge disputed the meaning of Net neutrality with the Recording Industry Association of America, the Songwriters Guild of America butted heads with YouTube over how to ensure that songwriters receive royalties for online videos.

"We've been having these same issues for 10 years now, and we can never get attention because of the complexity of the situation," said Zahavah Levine, chief counsel for YouTube.

Yet even with bank bailout plans and billion-dollar efforts at economic recovery keeping lawmakers busy, the climate in Washington may finally be right for copyright and intellectual property reform. The House Judiciary Committee this year elevated intellectual property issues from the jurisdiction of a subcommittee to the full committee because of increased interest in the matter.

"This may be the very best opportunity this country will have for decades to do something about the issues you really care about," Michael Copps, acting chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said in his keynote address at Wednesday's event. "We can have a media of which we can all be proud."

Still, David Carson, general counsel for the U.S. Copyright Office, said he didn't expect Congress to get past performance rights issues and perhaps orphan rights.

"Congress rarely steps in and fixes anything" related to intellectual property, Carson said. "The Pro-IP Act was tinkering around the edges--there was nothing really in there. Legislation just doesn't seem to be the way to make progress, no matter what your definition of progress is."

Furthermore, the Obama administration has yet to make it entirely clear where exactly it stands on copyright issues. Obama must still appoint an IP enforcement coordinator, as well as someone to lead the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

"It's really unclear which direction they're going," said Steve Marks, executive vice president and general counsel for the RIAA. "The question is, once you get past the more macro issues, whether you'll be seeing a balanced approach."

The question remained as to what would be a reasonable approach to issues like Net neutrality.

Gigi Sohn, the president of Public Knowledge, criticized Senator Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) failed attempt to modify the Net neutrality provisions in the so-called stimulus bill.

"The language would have equated reasonable network management with automatic copyright filtering," Sohn said. "Copyright filtering is not network management, it's content management."

Marks took issue with Sohn's interpretation of Feinstein's proposal, while Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America said Net neutrality provisions must consider antipiracy efforts.

Meanwhile, Levine of YouTube could not even agree with Walter McDonough, general counsel for the Future of Music Coalition, over whether groups representing music publishers could legally give YouTube data regarding which publishers own which songs.

"We're talking about millions of songs we need to license, and we have no way of knowing who owns these," Levine said. "We want to pay."

McDonough insisted that information could not simply be handed over.

"The music people don't understand technology, and the technology people don't understand music," he said.

The panelists concluded the best hope for copyright reform may come from the courts. The Supreme Court has so far refused to take up the Cablevision case regarding server-based digital video recording services, but the panelists said new developments could be significant.

"If the Supreme Court takes up the Cablevision case, they could do something revolutionary," Carson said.