Bush's New Copyright Czar Is Going To Do About As Much Good As His Drug Czar

Yesterday, President Bush signed into law the Pro-IP Act, which further criminalizes consumer behavior and appoints a new “Copyright Czar” to oversee enforcement of the new measures. The law triples damages in copyright infringement cases, allows the government to seize property used to usurp a company’s copyrights (hang onto those laptops), and makes each song, movie, or other piece of stolen content a separate criminal offense. Correction: this last provision thankfully was stripped out of the bill. The law is so over the top that even the Department of Justice opposed it.

Chalk this one up as another victory in the copyright wars to the reactionaries who don’t want anything to change. They think that copyright law written in the pre-digital age needs to be reinforced instead of rethought. Lawrence Lessig described what is at stake in an Op-Ed yesterday in the Wall Street Journal:

We are in the middle of something of a war here — what some call “the copyright wars”; what the late Jack Valenti called his own “terrorist war,” where the “terrorists” are apparently our kids. . . . Peer-to-peer file sharing is the enemy in the “copyright wars.” Kids “stealing” stuff with a computer is the target. The war is not about new forms of creativity, not about artists making new art.

Yet every war has its collateral damage. These creators are this war’s collateral damage. The extreme of regulation that copyright law has become makes it difficult, sometimes impossible, for a wide range of creativity that any free society — if it thought about it for just a second — would allow to exist, legally. In a state of “war,” we can’t be lax.

The copyright wars threaten to kill new forms of creativity and free speech that are emerging on the Web. What is lacking in bills like the Pro-IP Act is a counterbalancing protection of free speech and a clearer definition of fair use. A video mashup of a 13-month-old baby dancing to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” should be fair use, but YouTube was asked to take down that exact video anyway and it did. Because nobody wants to take these things to court or pay triple damages. Under the new law, would each view of such a video be considered a separate infringement?

If John McCain or Barack Obama really want to show their independence from corporate lobbyists then they should explain how they will help to steer copyright law into the 21st Century. (McCain, for one, can certainly appreciate the fair use argument).