Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, has suggested that in the light of certain recent events, copyright laws in the US should be re-evaluated, bemoaning the influence and lobbying efforts of the content community.
Writing a Forbes opinion piece, Shapiro asks: “Are copyright laws hurting America? Increasingly, and particularly in this first month of 2013, the answer seems to be yes.”
Shapiro admits that the January suicide of 26-year-old Aaron Swartz made him wonder if the US has lost its way. “Swartz took his own life after prosecutors threatened him with lengthy jail time for downloading academic papers, even though he neither sold nor distributed the content he downloaded and by all accounts hurt no one. Swartz was charged with unauthorised computer access, but the prosecutor defended his case against Swartz by saying, ‘stealing is stealing’,” Shapiro notes
He says that Swartz’s death caused him to wonder about the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) lawsuits against 30,000 young Americans – each imposing a “devastating” cash settlement. “The RIAA collected in excess of $30 million this way. How many kids had to drop out of college? How many lives were ruined? We may never know as the RIAA insisted on a confidentiality clause forever preventing the defendants from telling their stories. What makes matters worse though is that Congress did the RIAA’s bidding by constantly adding damages, extending the copyright term and making lawsuits easy. Was it worth it?,” he asks.
He describes the last year as “a roller-coaster” for digital rights supporters, noting that it was just a year ago that the public revolted against the RIAA and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). “These groups and others, like the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA), convinced Congress that copyright interests trumped innovation on the Internet, leading to the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate. Millions of Americans rejected the content lobby’s position and told Congress that it should let the Internet flourish. Congress listened and backed down,” he reports.
Shapiro says he gets daily reminders of what he describes as “the unfortunate dual absurdity and strength of the copyright lobby” citing as an example in October, when the Library of Congress ‘updated’ the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to make it illegal to buy a smartphone and unlock it, “a clear intrusion into the concept of private property,” he asserts.
He pointedly notes that earlier in January, “the revolving door between Congress and the content industry” continued to swing as the House Judiciary Committee rehired as its top parliamentarian an employee who had served as a top lobbyist for the NMPA.
“Ironically, I welcomed all the studio home video heads on stage with me at our CES opening keynote to announce a private deal between hardware and software providers to meet consumers’ need for multi-device access and Hollywood’s concern about security through the locker approach envisioned by UltraViolet,” he reports, adding that this “non-lobbied, non-government marketplace determined approach is how it should be,” thereafter suggesting the recent presidential inauguration saw the content lobby “in full force with parties, concerts, events and expecting rewards from their visible and substantial support for President Obama.” Shapiro, nevertheless notes, to Obama’s credit, that he came out against the “bad” Internet legislation in 2013 before consumers amassed in Congress.
Shapiro also reports that on January 25, the CEA and two other groups filed an amicus brief in a case seeking to preserve the legality of the Dish Hopper, a next-generation DVR product which, Shapiro says “despite clear precedent in the 1985 Sony Betamax Supreme Court decision holding that it’s okay to record over-the-air broadcasts,” broadcasters are challenging. “This followed an odd series of events at the 2013 CES in which CBS corporate seized control of its subsidiary CNET and refused to allow its journalists to name the Hopper Sling one of the best products featured at the show,” he adds.
“Yes, January has been mostly a tough month as the year-old victory against the massive content lobby gives way to the reality that we face a huge well-funded army of lobbyists whose sole purpose is to convince Congress that the interests of the massive content companies are more important than the interests of artists, musicians, innovators and ordinary people.” he contends.
“I am not crying poor here. We have big companies and although we have massively fewer lobbyists and political donations, we do have honesty, credibility, a history of being right about technology and its value, and a bipartisan consensus that fostering innovation must be a national strategy. We have a history of success with the private sector industry creating solutions like UltraViolet, iTunes, IBM and Amazon,” he says.
“I used to believe that the copyright paradigm was solid and only needed tweaking, but I increasingly believe that the balance in the US is broken and is hurting our nation. The Constitution allows Congress to make laws on patents and copyrights to “promote Science and the useful arts”. We should re-evaluate our copyright laws with that purpose in mind,” he concludes.