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Congress Begins Copyright Review, Hoping for Consensus, Civility

Lawmakers looking to overhaul U.S. copyright law heard testimony on Thursday that underscored a crucial difference between the present and any other time in history: Copyright is now something the general public is aware of daily, which makes the issue far more contentious.

In the first in a series of hearings on copyright, the House Judiciary Committee invited five members of a study group, The Copyright Principals Project, to testify, Adi Robertson of The Verge website reported.

Microsoft lawyer Jule Sigall said that over the past 20 years he has, “watched the public perception of copyright deteriorate, from a positive — if little-known — means of enriching public knowledge to the increasingly negative, and even hostile, manner in which it is sometimes viewed today.”

Another study group member, former Copyright Office General Counsel Jon Baumgarten also spoke of changing attitudes.

“I don’t think the copyright system is broken or dysfunctional,” he asserted. The problem, as he saw it, was that people simply no longer wanted to protect it. Despite disagreement in past decades, he said, “by and large, the copyright revision debates in the ’60s and ’70s were engaged in by people who respected and in many case loved copyright law.”

Speaking from the other side, law professor Daniel Gervais said that as copyright has become more visible, the system’s flaws have become more obvious. He called for an approach based less on protecting against piracy than on “maximizing authorized uses.”

At the hearing titled, “A Case Study for Consensus Building, ”  Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte emphasized the need for civility and praised the study group members for their ability to speak “with a recognition that the person next to them at the witness table has just as much right to advocate their position on copyright law as they do.”

But absent from this celebration of civility and consensus were people who actually make their living from intellectual property, a fact noted by many, including writer and indie filmmaker David Newhoff, who posted his thoughts at The Illusion of More:

I suppose because the word consensus is also part of the title, several lawmakers and the witnesses called to testify repeated the rhetorical question as to why debate about copyright has become so contentious.  For authors and creators who actually use copyrights to forge professional careers and build businesses, this feint at decorum will elicit a justifiable sneer because it’s kinda like saying, “All someone did was spit in your eye, and I don’t know why we can’t now have a civil discussion about the principles of expectoration.”

Although consensus eluded the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, for one day Chairman Goodlatte had the civility he sought.