Intellectual Property... Bad Democrats!!!

I've believed for a long time that the blogosphere is representing a new constituency in the Democratic Party - it's the town square for the Creative Class.  However, while Senators and members might consider blogs 'cute', and they might see right-wing blogs as dangerous, they do not take us seriously as a group.  I'm going to try to lay out how you can tell that we are irrelevant right now by walking through some policy areas that are meaningful to many of us but completely ignored by Democrats in Congress.  The clearest one is Intellectual Property, which is possibly the most obvious example of ignorance and malice towards progressives among DC Democrats.
One of the key tenets of a progressive society is an acknowledgement that we stand on the shoulder of giants.  Arts, sciences, culture - these are systems which demand both revenue models and certain protections to the public at large.  So we have patents - government granted monopolies - but they expire.  We have copyright restrictions, but there's a doctrine called Fair Use protecting the public's right to parody, excerpt, and creative derivative works.  Without it, you could probably successfully sue any blogger for excerpting a news article.

The internet shows just how important a sharing society is, with the web largely built upon shared source code, interlinking content, and users who are both consumers and producers of content at the same time.  Of course, this was true before the internet.  Hip Hop for instance was formed largely on sampled disco riffs, and the technology industry liberally borrows across itself and academia.  But the internet as a medium is beginning to show the sketches of a radically different and decentralized economy and society.

Big content companies - including some of the biggest donors to the Democratic Party - do not like this pattern of usage.  After all, they are top-down massive entities that thrive on a mass consumer relationship.  They want to not only profit from the music they produce, they want to control how the public listens, samples, and participates in its culture.  They are attacking Fair Use, and have over the past hundred years or so attempted to eviscerate it.  This is picking up steam, and right-wing think tanks are joining up with the content companies.

The Progress and Freedom Foundation is questioning the doctrine of Fair Use.

Fair use has outlived much of its usefulness in a market with ever-increasing digital offerings for sale at varying price points, Progress & Freedom Foundation Senior Fellow James DeLong told a congressional subcommittee today.

This is a radical statement.  It means that the public no longer has the right to participate in its culture.

"A crucial point is that fair use and free  use are not the same thing," DeLong explained. "Consumers' interest is in having creative works readily available, in the same sense that consumers have a strong interest in having a good supply of decent food available in the supermarket."

Food in the supermarket.  Yup, you should have a menu of ideas and cultural works to pick and choose from, but under no circumstances should you be able to participate in the creation or refining of ideas.

You might have heard of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that has worked on defending the internet's open model of information flow since 1990.  They are fighting this fight, along with the Free Culture movement, and a great group called Public Knowledge.  Boingboing, the extraordinarily popular and awesome blog which many of you may read, is a leading proponent of progressive reform of copyright.

The Democrats in Congress and good government groups like Common Cause are not.  It's a common thread - reformers in the campaign finance world are working to restrict freedom on the internet, because they don't really act as if individual freedom is a positive good, only that corporate corruption is a clear wrong. Look at the most recent proposal from House Democrats:

Protect the intellectual property of American innovators worldwide, strengthen the patent system, and end the diversion of patent fees.

This comes in the section of the plan which is designed to 'help small businesses', but this is really a give away to big content companies.  Since when have small businesses had as their main worry having their IP taken by foreigners?  The only people who care about this are very wealthy VCs, big content companies and CEOs of large technology companies.  Strengthening the patent system is another name for increasing the profitability of pharmaceutical makers, and ending the diversion of patent fee is an obscure accounting trick designed to give the patent office more resources.  Small companies are actually afraid of being sued because of an overly strong patent and copyright system.  

Progressives bitch a lot about media consolidation.  It's a bad thing.  But if you want to see where media consolidation is going, look at IP laws on the internet.  As more content moves online, the advantage of owning pipes will decline, and media companies have to find another sustained advantage or else their protected business model will lose its protection.  The answer is political - get rid of Fair Use and impose what is essentially a tax on Americans for access to our own culture.

Democratics in Congress, with the exception of some fine leaders like Rick Boucher and Zoey Lofgren, are largely clueless or actively malicious in this battle.  Until our elected leaders begin to understand that there is value in freedom, that the digital world is not some weird place where freedom of speech is entirely subservient to commercial interests, we will not be a progressive party.

If we don't make ourselves heard here, the youth, who do care about being sued for sharing music, the technogeeks, who are otherwise very progressive, and small business, who just don't want to be sued by big business, will remain tenuous partners or outside our coalition.  And then of course there's the whole moral and economic aspect to it.  Copyright reform is smart policy and the right thing to do.  Funny how that works.

Tags: Blogosphere (all tags)

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