Today I attended a briefing for new staff and members of Congress on copyright (free lunch). Event speakers included Mike Godwin, innovation policy director, R Street Institute; Rebecca Tushnet, professor, Georgetown University Law School; Jonathan Band, copyright counsel, American Library Association; and Sherwin Siy, vice president for legal affairs, Public Knowledge. The program was remarkable because the speakers were well prepared, smart, and covered the aspects of copyright that are most relevant today. I already know this stuff, and I didn’t get a bag lunch—they ran out because too many people came—but I thoroughly enjoyed the program. How do explain copyright to a full room of people who likely know nothing about copyright in less than 90 minutes?
What does this have to do with a washing machine?
Wait, I’m getting there.
Representative Blake Farenthold (R-TX) welcomed the group and talked briefly about the You Own Devices Act (YODA), reintroduced by Farenthold and Jared Polis (D-CO). Wednesday. YODA seeks to address the problem that consumers will increasingly face when buying a tangible product whose operation is controlled by licensed software connected to the internet. Dig: You bought the refrigerator but you only licensed the software necessary to run the appliance. You cannot transfer or sell that refrigerator and its software companion because you would violate the terms of your software contract, ultimately restricting your right to first sale.
Farenthold used the example of a flat screen television. You buy a used one from your “must have the latest shiny” neighbor, but when you try to watch a film via your Netflix account, the TV will not work. There are some ridiculous examples like the automated cat litter box I wrote about earlier. Remember the unlocking cell phone controversy. It required legislation to fix so consumers could lawfully transfer to another cell phone carrier.
Why are manufacturers making it so difficult to transfer products? Competition, baby. Sometimes it is about tying the consumer to one manufacturer to maximize profit—i.e only Company X sells the printer cartridge necessary for your printer. Licensing the software inside of your tractor makes it harder to repair your tractor yourself because it requires breaking the software and the copyright law. Instead you have to use company’s repair staff to fix your truck, and the cost is sky high because there is no competition. Secondary markets like Purple Heart or the used bookstore eBay have always been problematic for rights holders because they reap no money from the second sale.
If the Congress actually considers YODA in this Congressional session, wait for the sparks to fly. This is beyond the typical copyright controversies. This is about your freaking washing machine!
More on the copyright briefing in a future post, right here on the District Dispatch!