Why I’m Not a Copyright Pessimist

by on August 2, 2008 · 19 comments

I too am sad to see William Patry hanging up his spurs. I can sympathize with a lot of he says. I too consider myself a copyright centrist and a defender of copyright’s traditions and so find it frustrating to be forced by recent trends to be constantly on the “anti-copyright” side of every argument. However, I don’t share Patry’s depression regarding recent trends in the copyright world. Because while the legislative developments over the last 30 years have been an unbroken string of disasters, most other aspects of the copyright system have actually gone pretty well.

One ray of light is the courts, which continue to get more right than they get wrong. The courts have, for example tended to uphold the first sale doctrine and fair use against concerted challenges from the copyright industries. Had Congress not passed the 1976 Copyright Act, the NET Act in 1997, and the DMCA and CTEA in 1998, my sense is that we’d actually have a pretty balanced copyright system. This suggests to me that restoring copyright sanity wouldn’t actually be that hard, if Congress were ever inclined to do so. To a large extent, it would simply have to repeal the bad legislation enacted during the 1990s.

I can think of two reasons my outlook might be more optimistic than Patry’s. One is that I’m younger than he is. I graduated from high school in 1998, which was almost certainly the low point when it comes to copyright policy on the Hill. While advocates of balanced copyright haven’t passed any major legislative victories since then, they have blocked most of the bad ideas that have come down the pike. We killed Fritz Hollings godawful SSSCA, the broadcast flag, “analog hole” legislation, and so forth. Given the lopsided advantages of the copyright maximalist in terms of funding and lobbying muscle, holding our own isn’t bad.

I think another reason I might be less inclined to get depressed than Patry is that I’m not a copyright lawyer. One of the most important trends of the last couple of decades is a steady divergence between the letter of copyright law and peoples’ actual practice. At the same time copyright law has gotten more draconian, it has also grown less powerful. More and more people are simply ignoring copyright law and doing as they please. A few of them get caught and face draconian penalties, but the vast majority ignore the law without any real consequences.

I imagine this is depressing for a copyright lawyer to see an ever-growing chasm between the letter of the law and peoples’ actual behavior. The copyright lobby’s extremism is steadily making copyright law less relevant and pushing more and more people to simply ignore it. That’s depressing for someone who loves copyright law, but I’m not sure it’s so terrible for the rest of us. I would, of course, prefer to have a reasonable set of copyright laws that most people would respect and obey. But I’m not sure it’s such a terrible thing when people react to unreasonable laws by ignoring them. Eventually, Congress will notice that there’s little correspondence between what people are doing and what the law says they ought to be doing, and they’ll change the laws accordingly. I’d prefer that happen sooner rather than later, but I have little doubt that it will happen, and I’m not going to lose sleep over it in the interim.

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