Illegally downloading a couple dozen songs can earn you a million-dollar fine. Setting some Robert Frost verses to music can make you a criminal. Software or hardware that could possibly be used to copy DVDs -- illegal. And thanks to congressional action every couple of decades, Disney still holds a copyright over Mickey Mouse, whom Walt first created nearly a century ago.
The law and law enforcement around copyright has moved far beyond its purpose of promoting arts and sciences and has become a textbook case of collusion between big business and big government.
If Republicans took on this issue, they could make a play for younger voters while fighting for free enterprise. But that would require standing up to big movie studios and record labels -- and that's not really how Republicans roll, as a GOP memo on copyright reform painfully showed.
On the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 16, the Republican Study Committee -- the conservative caucus in the House -- published a paper examining the problems with current copyright law. The paper suggested the current copyright regime is "corporate welfare that hurts innovation and hurts the consumer. It is a system that picks winners and losers, and the losers are new industries that could generate new wealth and add value." (See the complete paper in the embedded viewer below this column.)
The paper proposed lighter punishments for copyright infringements and suggested shorter terms for copyrights. (Under current law, written works are under copyright for 75 years after the author's death.)
This paper upset some powerful interests. By Saturday afternoon, the RSC had pulled the memo from its website and officially retracted it. The reason, according to two Republicans within the RSC: angry objections from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, whose district abuts Nashville, Tenn. In winning a fifth term earlier in the month, Blackburn received more money from the music industry than any other Republican congressional candidate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Blackburn's office did not return calls seeking comment.
Lobbyists for the music and movie industries also called the RSC to express disapproval, according to Republicans involved.
The staffer who wrote the memo, an ambitious 24-year-old named Derek Khanna, was fired -- even before the RSC had decided on other staffing changes for the upcoming Congress. The copyright memo was a main reason.
Republicans are surprisingly close to the entertainment industry. For instance, Mitch Glazier, as a Republican House Judiciary Committee staffer in the late 1990s, played a key role in drafting GOP bills expanding copyright before cashing out to the industry. He now runs the Recording Industry Association of America, a $4 million-a-year lobby operation that fights for more government protection of record labels.
So Republican politicians, with their sensitivities to K Street and their general pro-big-business tendencies, are not eager to roll back the extraordinary government protection for Hollywood and Nashville. But free-market think tanks and writers are banging the drum.
Jerry Brito, a scholar at the Mercatus Center, has just published "Copyright Unbalanced: From Incentive to Excess," an entire book of essays critiquing current copyright law from a free-market perspective, and the Cato Institute is hosting a panel on the book Thursday.
Brito's incisive book tells tale after tale of government kowtowing to copyright holders. An egregious example is Mickey Mouse. "Each time the copyright ... was about to expire, and the happy rodent was about to become a shared cultural icon like Santa Claus, Hamlet, and Uncle Sam, Congress has extended the copyright term," Brito explains.
This is not at all what the founders had in mind when they authorized Congress "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries. ... "
Retroactively extending the copyright on a work produced long ago cannot promote useful arts and sciences. It just enriches the copyright holder and denies access to everyone else -- which is exactly the point, if you're an industry lobbyist.
Once again, big business is aligned with big government and against open competition. So far, the party of free markets is on the wrong side.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.