Thursday, February 28, 2013

Copyright reform, right and left

Matt Yglesias asks me what I think about any likely partisan division over copyright reform.

The claim, made by Joe Karaganis at NRO (semi-gated) and echoed by Jerry Brito, is that the Republicans could be leading the fight for copyright reform because even though both parties have constituencies on both sides, the conservative pro-reform position has a natural home on the Right.

Karaganis (via Brito):
How would an Internet politics emerge in the Democratic party? The answer is probably simple: It is impossible in the short term because of the power of Hollywood and inevitable in the long term because of the power of time. Most of the young are already Democrats.
How would an Internet politics emerge in the Republican party? Given the decades of rhetorical entrenchment around property rights and law enforcement, it would probably require the recasting of intellectual-property rights as government monopoly, of SOPA-style bills as crony capitalism, and of Internet enforcement as part of a digital-surveillance state.
Maybe. I don't know as much as most about this issue, but it seems this analysis gets wrong the party identification of those who most benefit from the status quo.

Sure, the celebrity liberal activists of the film business are definitely Democrats ... your Susan Sarandons and your Barbara Streisands and your Matt Damons. But the guys who actually hold all the copyrights, who are trying to squeeze the last penny out of Battleship -- not necessarily. Gimpel, Lee and Parrott, for example, break down partisan giving by economic sector, and they show that those in the Motion Picture and Video Distribution sector appear to have no party preference. Those in Motion Picture and Video Production give slightly more the Republicans. The "talent" in the entertainment business may be Liz Lemon, but the corporation is still run by Jack Donaghy. Remember the writers' strike?

If that's right, then it's more than "rhetorical entrenchment" around property rights. It's actually supporting conservative business interests. Intellectual property is property, and copyright laws are designed to keep people from stealing your property. Anything else is socialism.

Meanwhile, the libertarian, information-just-wants-to-be-free folks are neither as big a part of the Right as this makes them out to be, nor are they uniquely on the Right. Liberals actually don't like unaccountable big government either -- see for example lefties on (1) drone strikes and (2) Aaron Swartz.

My guess is that this issue isn't going to move to the top of the agenda as quickly as we might think. It's a classic unorganized issue, where those who benefit from the status quo have power and influence, while those who would benefit from reform are diffuse and often are not even aware of the issue.


  1. Hans,

    Also note that intellectual property issues matter to many other industries besides Hollywood. For example, the pharmaceutical makers, whose giving is much more Republican.

    I think it's a safe bet that techno-libertarians always vastly overestimate their numbers, simply because they spend so much time talking with each other.

    Richard Skinner

  2. Yes. Definitely. The original argument was made in terms of Hollywood, of course.

    But yes, as a general matter, intellectual property is not something business interests have no interest in protecting.


  3. IP is an issue upon which industries are divided. The big monied interest that hates copyright law as it exists today is Google (the organized but less monied industry that hates copyright law is academia) - putting it at odds with software companies like Microsoft that have mixed feelings and want moderation because they make their money from copyrights but also constant risk treading on someone else's. The tech industry wants weaker patents, while pharma wants stronger patents. Industries that want IP rights but don't have them (like the fashion industry) want them only timidly.