Copyright Hearing 3: Is Congress Ready for a Balanced Debate?

Hearing highlights perceived conflicts on copyright, rather than consensus 


On Thursday  the House Judiciary committee held the second of two hearings on copyright and technology. The hearings were intended to illustrate the emerging consensus surrounding innovation and intellectual property. For Thursday’s hearing on the role of technology in innovation, the committee assembled a panel of witnesses with a wide range of knowledge on innovative business models and technological progress.

But the hearing, which was designed to highlight consensus, more frequently devolved into hostile cross-examination on only tangentially related topics. The questions revealed how far we have to go before many members of Congress understand the value of open source platforms and business models that aren’t dependant on retaining absolute control of your intellectual property.

The witnesses represent a new culture of sharing that exists primarily thanks to the Internet. Rather than jealously guard their devices or works, they distribute them. For these innovators and inventors, the US intellectual property regime is unduly restrictive. While IP law doesn’t prevent them from distributing their property, or using ideas as currency in an open source market, it also doesn’t necessarily protect them.

But question after question directed at the panel implied or stated that the witness wanted to destroy all intellectual property. The committee seemed incapable of understanding that the witnesses were explaining that they don’t need the protection of our intellectual property regime, not that it should be annihilated.

The committee wasted an opportunity to ask Rakesh Agrawal, founder of SnapStream Media about fair use as it relates to video clips, or Jim Fruchterman, CEO of Benetech, which has assembled the largest library of print accessible books in the world, about copyright exemptions for disabled persons. Instead, member after member tried to browbeat Nathan Seidle, CEO of Sparkfun, into admitting that some businesses need patents. This conversation led to a general derailment onto the subject of patents, further highlighting the general inability to distinguish different types of intellectual property.

Rather than asking questions from a genuine desire to understand the intersection of technology and copyright law, the committee seemed to operate under the assumption that there was an insurmountable conflict between the two. The hearing had a confrontational tone from the beginning, and it continued throughout.  

This hearing was notable especially in its shift in tone from last week’s. Last week, content creators explained how strong copyright protection is important for their industries. This week, innovators and inventors explained how their business models are profitable despite our strong copyright system, not because of it. These positions do not conflict as much as the committee seems to think.  

The perceived threat that open-source hardware and software supposedly poses to intellectual property generally provoked a knee-jerk, and misguided, defense. Innovation, even if it doesn’t need intellectual property protection to be profitable and beneficial to consumers, does not inherently threaten our current intellectual property regime.

Hopefully Thursday’s hearing will be a step in the right direction toward acknowledging that. If the SOPA/PIPA fight taught policy makers anything, it is that consumers and users of new technology want copyright policy that is balanced.  However, comments by some legislators at Thursday’s hearing may be a sign that they have yet to learn this lesson.

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