Copyright

Last week, the Mercatus Center and the R Street Institute co-hosted a video discussion about copyright law. I participated in the Google Hangout, along with co-liberator Tom Bell of Chapman Law School (and author of the new book Intellectual Privilege), Mitch Stoltz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Derek Khanna, and Zach Graves of the R Street Institute. We discussed the Aereo litigation, compulsory licensing, statutory damages, the constitutional origins of copyright, and many more hot copyright topics.

You can watch the discussion here:

 

Adam and I recently published a Mercatus research paper titled Video Marketplace Regulation: A Primer on the History of Television Regulation And Current Legislative Proposals, now available on SSRN. I presented the paper at a Silicon Flatirons academic conference last week.

We wrote the paper for a policy audience and students who want succinct information and history about the complex world of television regulation. Television programming is delivered to consumers in several ways, including via cable, satellite, broadcast, IPTV (like Verizon FiOS), and, increasingly, over-the-top broadband services (like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video). Despite their obvious similarities–transmitting movies and shows to a screen–each distribution platform is regulated differently.

The television industry is in the news frequently because of problems exacerbated by the disparate regulatory treatment. The Time Warner Cable-CBS dispute last fall (and TWC’s ensuing loss of customers), the Aereo lawsuit, and the Comcast-TWC proposed merger were each caused at least indirectly by some of the ill-conceived and antiquated TV regulations we describe. Further, TV regulation is a “thicket of regulations,” as the Copyright Office has said, which benefits industry insiders at the expense of most everyone else.

We contend that overregulation of television resulted primarily because past FCCs, and Congress to a lesser extent, wanted to promote several social objectives through a nationwide system of local broadcasters:

1) Localism
2) Universal Service
3) Free (that is, ad-based) television; and
4) Competition

These objectives can’t be accomplished simultaneously without substantial regulatory mandates. Further, these social goals may even contradict each other in some respects.

For decades, public policies constrained TV competitors to accomplish those goals. We recommend instead a reliance on markets and consumer choice through comprehensive reform of television laws, including repeal of compulsory copyright laws, must-carry, retransmission consent, and media concentration rules.

At the very least, our historical review of TV regulations provides an illustrative case study of how regulations accumulate haphazardly over time, demand additional “correction,” and damage dynamic industries. Congress and the FCC focused on attaining particular competitive outcomes through industrial policy, unfortunately. Our paper provides support for market-based competition and regulations that put consumer choice at the forefront.

Bell-3D-cover-webLast week, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University published the new book by Tom W. Bell, Intellectual Privilege: Copyright, Common Law, and the Common Good, which Eugene Volokh calls “A fascinating, highly readable, and original look at copyright[.]” Richard Epstein says that Bell’s book “makes a distinctive contribution to a field in which fundamental political theory too often takes a back seat to more overt utilitarian calculations.” Some key takeaways from the book:

  • If copyright were really property, like a house or cell phone, most Americans would belong in jail. That nobody seriously thinks infringement should be fully enforced demonstrates that copyright is not property and that copyright policy is broken.
  • Under the Founders’ Copyright, as set forth in the 1790 Copyright Act, works could be protected for a maximum of 28 years. Under present law, they can be extended to 120 years. The massive growth of intellectual privilege serves big corporate publishers to the detriment of individual authors and artist.
  • By discriminating against unoriginal speech, copyright sharply limits our freedoms of expression.
    We should return to the wisdom of the Founders and regard copyrights as special privileges narrowly crafted to serve the common good.

This week, on Wednesday, May 7, at noon, the Cato Institute will hold a book forum featuring Bell, and comments by Christopher Newman, Assistant Professor, George Mason University School of Law. It’s going to be a terrific event and you should come. Please make sure to RSVP.

Aereo’s antenna system is frequently characterized perjoratively as a Rube Goldberg contraption, including in the Supreme Court oral arguments. Funny enough, Preston Padden, a veteran television executive, has characterized the legal system producing over-the-air broadcast television–Aereo’s chief legal opponents–precisely the same way. It’s also ironic that Aereo is in a fight for its life over alleged copyright violations since communications law diminishes the import of copyright law and makes copyright almost incomprehensible. Larry Downes calls the legal arguments for and against Aereo a “tangled mess.” David Post at the Volokh Conspiracy likewise concluded the situation is “pretty bizarre, when you think about it” after briefly exploring how copyright law interacts with communications law.

I agree, but Post actually understates how distorted the copyright law becomes when TV programs pass through a broadcaster’s towers, as opposed to a cable company’s headend. In particular, a broadcaster, which is mostly a passive transmitter of TV programs, gains more control over the programs than the copyright owners. It’s nearly impossible to separate the communications law distortions from the copyright issues, but the Aereo issue could be solved relatively painlessly by the FCC. It’s unfortunate copyright and television law intertwine like this because a ruling adverse to Aereo could potentially–and unnecessarily–upend copyright law.

This week I’ve seen many commentators, even Supreme Court justices, mischaracterize the state of television law when discussing the Aereo case. This is a very complex area and below is my attempt to lay out some of the deeper legal issues driving trends in the television industry that gave rise to the Aereo dispute. Crucially, the law is even more complex than most people realize, which benefits industry insiders and prevents sensible reforms. Continue reading →

The House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology will soon consider whether to reauthorize the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) set to expire at the end of the year. A hearing scheduled for this week has been postponed on account of weather.

Congress ought to scrap the current compulsory license in STELA that governs the importation of distant broadcast signals by Direct Broadcast Satellite providers.  STELA is redundant and outdated. The 25 year-old statute invites rent-seeking every time it comes up for reauthorization.

At the same time, Congress should also resist calls to use the STELA reauthorization process to consider retransmission consent reforms.  The retransmission consent framework is designed to function like the free market and is not the problem.

Continue reading →

I’m pleased to announce that Alex Tabarrok and I have a new working paper out from the Mercatus Center today, “Public Choice and Bloomington School Perspectives on Intellectual Property.” The paper will appear in Public Choice in 2014.

Here’s the abstract:

We mine two underexplored traditions for insights into intellectual property: the public choice or Virginia school, centered on James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, and the Bloomington or Institutional Analysis and Development school, centered on Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom. We apply the perspectives of each school to issues of intellectual property and develop new insights, questions, and focuses of attention. We also explore tensions and synergies between the two schools on issues of intellectual property.

The gist of the paper is that the standard case for intellectual property—that a temporary monopoly is needed in order to recoup the sunk costs of innovation or creation—ignores issues raised by the two schools we investigate.

From a public choice perspective, a temporary monopoly provides enormous opportunities for rent seeking. Copyright and patent owners are constantly manipulating the political environment to expand either the duration of the monopoly or the scope of what can be monopolized. We document the evolution of intellectual property in the United States from its modest origins to its current strong and expansive state.

From a Bloomington perspective, the standard case for IP wrongly treats the commons as a kind of wasteland. In fact, numerous innovations and sprawling creative works occur without monopolization—just look at Wikipedia. Innovation occurs when the right institutional structures are in place, and intellectual property that is too severe can hamper the smooth operation of these institutions. Too much IP can harm as much as too little.

Read the whole thing, cite it copiously, etc.

Anupam Chander, Director of the California International Law Center and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar at the UC Davis School of Law, discusses his recent paper with co-author Uyen P. Lee titled The Free Speech Foundations of Cyberlaw. Chander addresses how the first amendment promotes innovation on the Internet; how limitations to free speech vary between the US and Europe; the role of online intermediaries in promoting and protecting the first amendment; the Communications Decency Act; technology, piracy, and copyright protection; and the tension between privacy and free speech.

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Ryan Radia is one of the few people in the world with whom it is a true pleasure to discuss copyright issues. We see eye to eye on almost everything, but there is enough difference in our perspectives to make things interesting. More importantly, Ryan’s only religious fealty is to logic and the economic way of thinking, which makes for reasoned and respectful conversations. So I am delighted that he took the time to conduct one of his patented Radianalysis™ reviews of the issues raised by PiracyData.org. As is very often the case, I agree from top to bottom with what Ryan has laid out, and it has prompted some thoughts that I’d like to share.

What Ryan is addressing in his piece is the question of whether shortening or eliminating release windows would reduce piracy. He concludes that yes, “Hollywood probably could make a dent in piracy if it put every new movie on iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Amazon, and Netflix the day of release. Were these lawful options available from the get-go, they’d likely attract some people who would otherwise pirate a hit new film by grabbing a torrent on The Pirate Bay.” That said, Ryan points out quite rightly that “even if Hollywood could better compete with piracy by vastly expanding online options for viewing new release films, this might not be a sound money-making strategy. Each major film studio is owned by a publicly-held corporation that operates for the benefit of its shareholders. In other words, the studios are in the business of earning profits, not maximizing their audiences.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

One thing that caught me off guard when we launched PiracyData.org (but that in retrospect should not have), is that many people interpreted our attempt to create a dataset as a statement that Hollywood is to blame for its own piracy problem. As I’ve explained, I think it’s dumb to blame Hollywood for piracy, and doing so was not what motivated the project. What motivated the project was Hollywood’s claim that private third parties, such as search engines, have an obligation to do everything in their power to reduce piracy, and that companies like Google are not doing “enough” today.

As Ryan points out, the studios could probably curb piracy by changing their business model, but doing so might very well mean taking a cut in revenue. And as he also points out, the studios are not audience maximizers; they are profit maximizers. This is why they are not about to drastically change their business model anytime soon, which is their prerogative and one I understand. But then the question is, how many resources should we expect taxpayers and private third parties to spend to ensure that the studios can maximize their profits?

Continue reading →

Two weeks ago, with much fanfare, PiracyData.org went live. Created by co-liberators Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado, along with Matt Sherman, the website tracks TorrentFreak’s list of which movies are most pirated each week, and indicates whether and how consumers may legally watch these movies online. The site’s goal, Brito explains, is to “shed light on the relationship between piracy and viewing options.” Tim Lee has more details over on The Switch.

Assuming the site’s data are accurate—which it appears to be, despite some launch hiccups—PiracyData.org offers an interesting snapshot of the market for movies on the Internet. To date, the data suggest that a sizeable percentage of the most-pirated movies cannot be purchased, rented, or streamed from any legitimate Internet source. Given that most major movies are legally available online, why do the few films that aren’t online attract so many pirates? And why hasn’t Hollywood responded to rampant piracy by promptly making hit new releases available online?

Is Hollywood leaving money on the table?

To many commentators, PiracyData.org is yet another nail in Hollywood’s coffin. Mike Masnick, writing on Techdirt, argues that “the data continues to be fairly overwhelming that the ‘piracy problem’ is a problem of Hollywood’s own making.” The solution? Hollywood should focus on “making more content more widely available in more convenient ways and prices” instead of “just point[ing] the blame finger,” Masnick concludes. Echoing this sentiment, CCIA’s Ali Sternburg points out on DisCo that “[o]ne of the best options for customers is online streaming, and yet piracydata.org shows that none of the most pirated films are available to be consumed in that format.”

But the argument that Hollywood could reap greater profits and discourage piracy simply by making its content more available has serious flaws. For one thing, as Ryan Chittum argues in the Columbia Journalism Review, “the movies in the top-10 most-pirated list are relatively recent releases.” Thus, he observes, these movies are “in higher demand—including from thieves—than back-catalog films.” If PiracyData.org tracked release dates, each film’s recency of release might well turn out to be more closely correlated with piracy than availability of legitimate viewing options.

In fairness to Masnick and Sternburg, Hollywood probably could make a dent in piracy if it put every new movie on iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Amazon, and Netflix the day of release. Were these lawful options available from the get-go, they’d likely attract some people who would otherwise pirate a hit new film by grabbing a torrent on The Pirate Bay. Those who pirate movies may be law-breaking misers, but they still weigh tradeoffs and respond to incentives like any other consumer. Concepts like legality may not matter to pirates, but they still care about price, quality, and convenience. This is why you won’t see a video that’s freely available in high-definition on YouTube break a Bittorrent record anytime soon.

Continue reading →

The launch of our new site PiracyData.org has predictably stirred up a good debate and I thought I’d chime in with a couple of thoughts. First I’d like to address the assertion by some, including Jeff Eisenach and Daniel Castro, that the point we’re trying to make with our site is that piracy is justified when content is not available legally. Here is Eisenach:

The Mercatus site is headlined by the following question: “Do people turn to piracy when the movies they want to watch are not available legally?” The implication is that piracy of movies that aren’t being offered legally is OK, or at least less bad, than piracy of movies that are currently available.

In both my post announcing the site and the Washington Post article Eisenach links to, as well as other articles about the site, I make it clear that there is no excuse for piracy. Piracy is illegal and wrong and copyright holders should be able to exercise their exclusive rights as they see fit during the term of copyright. I don’t know how much more explicit I can be. That said, although piracy is illegal and wrong, it may still be the case that the legal availability of content has an effect on piracy rates. That is a possibility that we are pointing out, not celebrating.

Second, I’d like to address the assertions by Eisenach and Castro that I am advocating that the movie industry should change its business model to collapse the theatrical release window, and that I think doing this will solve the piracy problem. Here again is Eisenach:

If you believe copyright holders have an obligation to make all content available to everyone all the time (as PiracyData.org seems to suggest), at what price would you require them to offer it?

In my post announcing the site I wrote that “their business model is their prerogative, and it’s none of my business to tell them how to operate,” and that’s something I repeated in other articles where I was quoted. So to be clear, I don’t think movie studios have any obligation to do anything. And I certainly don’t think that shortening their release windows would “eliminate piracy,” as Castro said.

Having addressed what I didn’t say, let me reiterate what I did say. The context for the creation of PiracyData.org was the MPAA report arguing that search engines were not taking sufficient voluntary measures to combat piracy. That study was released on the same day that the House held a hearing on “the role of voluntary agreements in U.S. intellectual property system” at which it was also argued that search engines, and Google in particular, have not done enough to combat piracy. The message from the content industry was, to echo Eisenach, that Google has an obligation to take all possible steps to end piracy. It is the nature of this notional obligation that we wanted to probe with PiracyData.org.

Hopefully I’ve been sufficiently clear that we all think that piracy is illegal and wrong and a problem that the content industry is rightfully up in arms about. So the question that we’re really debating is not whether piracy is right or wrong, but how to enforce copyright. How many resources should be expended, and by whom? That’s what this debate it really about.

Over a year ago, Google changed its algorithm to demote sites in its search results based on the number of copyright complaints those sites have received. An algorithmic change is as deep a change in a search engine’s business as one can expect. The message coming from the MPAA report and the House hearing, however, was that Google’s efforts were not enough, and that they should take further voluntary steps to not only remove infringing links from their search results, but also promote to the top legal sources.

PiracyData.org is never going to show all the ways that availability can affect piracy rates, and I’ve been clear about that both in my launch post and in interviews I’ve given, but I think that simply looking at the availability of the most-pirated movies will help shed some light on the simple question of whether people might turn to piracy when there is no legal version available. As the MPAA report noted, the majority of consumers who found themselves at infringing links “did not display an intention of viewing content illegally.” So the question is, why did these consumers who had no illegal intent end up at infringing sites? If they turned to piracy because they could not find a legal version, that would not justify piracy, but I hope we can all agree that it would be good to know whether it might be happening.

So it seems to me that we have identified two contentions of how piracy might be addressed. One is to have search engines voluntarily take more and more steps to change how they present the Web to users in order to address piracy. The other is that movie studios could shrink the theatrical release window. These are not mutually exclusive, and I think we see both happening. Google, as I mentioned, has already changed its algorithm and taken other measures, and as the MPAA has pointed out, the movie studios are working hard to make their movies available when and where consumers want. The question, therefore, is whether these efforts are enough or not, and what is the best way to enforce copyright.

Without a massive investment in enforcement, the sad reality is that piracy rates will never be zero. So what we should debate is whether additional enforcement efforts are worth the cost. As much as we might not want it to be the case, at some point there are diminishing marginal returns to more enforcement. If we determine that more could be done, then then the question is who should make that investment. Should it be search engines or the movies studios who should consider further changing how they do business?

Now, let me say that I am absolutely sympathetic to content owners who are put in incredibly unfair position of having to compete with piracy. As I said before, under the law they have the exclusive right to determine how they will distribute their works, and it is galling that they might feel forced by pirates to adopt a business model against their wishes. That is not fair to content owners. That said, the fact that they are facing this competition from piracy, as unfair and reprehensible as it is, is a fact that can’t be ignored.

In sum, these are the tough questions we should be discussing, not distractions about whether anyone is condoning piracy or whether anyone is blaming the victim, etc. We were hoping that PiracyData.org would spark that discussion, and boy have we had a big return on our investment! Now we need to make sure that we keep this debate on the serious and nuanced questions, and this is often hard to do over tweets and quotes in articles. So we are thinking of holding an event here at George Mason with all points of view represented to discuss these real questions. Stay tuned for details.