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Could we have a splash of color? Two primary themes of another Dark Gray Suit Meeting on Copyright

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is an agency of the Department of Commerce. So it is no surprise that the USPTO-sponsored public meeting on the Department’s “green paper” (pdf)–“Copyright Policy, Creativity and Innovation in the Digital Economy” was primarily about the market for digital goods. The all-day meeting was organized around six topics that the Commerce Department’s Internet Policy Task Force identified in the green paper: statutory damages and secondary liability, digital first sale, the legal framework for remixes, the notice and take down system established in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the online marketplace, and online transactions. (I can’t help but think that this list sounds boring to most people, but on my word, I have never seen anyone fall asleep at these meetings. The same cannot be said at congressional hearings, but I digress.)


The audience, primarily clad in the obligatory “inside the beltway” dark gray suits, included the usual suspects (mostly lobbyists and a few academics and librarians) and was attentive. The panelists had differences of opinion, but were relatively well-behaved. Nobody made the kinds of outrageous statements you will often hear at congressional hearings e.g., “Digital piracy, if not contained, will change the very fabric of our great nation.” Instead, everyone was on the same page–ensuring that the intellectual property [sic] market is effective, efficient, and profitable for all of us. One new to the scene might wonder, why the heck are librarians here? I noted two primary themes of the day–collaboration among the stakeholders and the role government can play in facilitating market progress. Industry representatives were willing to collaborate, or at least they said they were. The content companies and online intermediaries have two different perspectives regarding the digital commerce. Content companies, who hold a lot of copyrights, want intermediaries to protect their content by working with or as copyright trolls, cutting off the online privileges of the bad guys. Intermediaries want to be free to innovate and test options in the marketplace without letting additional police work get in the way.

For the most part, both did not support government intervention, because, well…things can get mucked up, even with a well-intentioned Congress. All are weary of trying to find compromise in legislation. As soon as watered down, convoluted, and ineffective legislation is enacted, it doesn’t stand the test of time. “Work-arounds”–agreements, best practices, principles, collaborative projects–might be the more effective and feasible response. In the meantime, we can rely on the mantra that the market will ultimately decide what is best.

But who speaks for the public interest while the “market makes decisions” and backdoor deals are being negotiated? That’s where we come in. We speak for the public and must draw attention to policy fundamentals–equity of access, the future of fair use, privacy and so on. Our goal–to be a splash of color in a sea of gray. We will be seen and heard.

There will be  more opportunities to respond to the “Copyright Policy” paper in the form of public roundtables to be held in early 2014, apparently in locations other than Washington, DC. In the meantime, we will elaborate on these issues and the impact on libraries and their communities in future District Dispatch posts.

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Carrie Russell

Carrie Russell is the director of the Program on Public Access to Information in the Washington Office. Her portfolio includes copyright, international copyright, accessibility, e-books, and other public policy issues. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MA in media arts from the University of Arizona.

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