Digital Copyright Questions Deserve Answers

The U.S. Supreme Court has an opportunity to chart a clearer course for copyright protection in the digital age if it agrees to hear a case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  The matter involves a video-on-demand service offered by Cablevision Systems, and allegations by Cable News Network that the service constitutes the unlawful copying and public performance of copyrighted works.

The case raises at least two serious and unresolved issues.  First, who is responsible for making a copy of protected content?   The cable customer who makes a selection from the cable company’s video-on-demand service?  Or the cable company itself, for putting in place and making available the automated software that allows the customer to make that selection?  

Second, what constitutes a public performance?  Is a video-on-demand program viewed in the privacy of one’s family room a public performance?

Such issues are important because they go beyond the narrow scope of video-on-demand and touch on broader questions of how digital technology will be used to produce, store, transmit, and copy content across a variety of platforms – and how that content is to be protected in this digital environment.  Once again technology has far outpaced law and regulation, and is striding ahead in territories still largely uncharted.

How the courts map that territory will depend on how much value they place on protecting the creative rights of copyright holders.  Meanwhile, the digital age in general and the Internet in particular have generated a new class of content users (including many college professors) who believe that anything goes when it comes to obtaining and sharing copyrighted material.  (Remember Napster?)

In the Cablevision matter, however, professors of a different stripe have filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to take the case.  Led by copyright guru Prof. Raymond Nimmer, this group of six law professors and one economics professor (all with impeccable intellectual property credentials) argue that creative rights are worth protecting and that the law should come down on the side of copyright owners.  (Two of the group, Dean Rodney A. Smolla of the Washington & Lee University School of Law and Prof. Stan Liebowitz of the University of Texas at Dallas, sit on the advisory council of the National CyberEducation Project, a program of The Media Institute.)

I agree with these professors, that the Supreme Court needs to take this case for the sake of digital information systems going forward.  I further agree that copyrights are essential – and that copyright protection needs to be clarified in this digital age.   

Digital Politics Comes of Age

Pundits, pols, and political scientists will spend months and years dissecting this presidential election.  But one fact is unmistakably clear: We have seen the future of politics.  And it’s digital.

Digital technologies played a bigger and more decisive role in the outcome of this election than ever before.  For a confluence of reasons, they worked spectacularly well for Barack Obama.

Consider some of the particulars: The respective campaigns relied on sophisticated marketing data from commercial firms that tracked Internet viewing habits, political leanings, and issues of interest to likely voters.  In addition to making it easy to donate money online, the candidates’ websites placed cookies in visitors’ computers, making it easy for the campaigns to keep track of potential voters and to target them at the online sites they were likely to frequent.

The campaigns collected the cell phone numbers of thousands of participants at political rallies and the national conventions.  They set up dedicated social network sites for their candidates, and individuals set up scores of independent socnets and blogs of their own.  The campaigns barraged their supporters with e-mails.

Barack Obama took things a step further by famously announcing his running mate via text message.  And his campaign even embedded Obama ads in video games. 

Okay, I think the running mate gambit was a gimmick.  But it seems to me that Obama clearly had the edge in using digital technologies more effectively than his competition in both the primary and general elections. 

Why?  Obama ran a young person’s campaign.  He appealed to the young demographic with his charisma and calls for change in a way the Republicans couldn’t touch.  And he was wildly successful at reaching young people via the digital technologies that are their lifelines.  They were able to interact not only with his campaign, but with their friends and online communities – and to extend that online involvement to grassroots participation on the street.

Obama has given us the best model of what digital politics will look like henceforth: using the Internet and personal electronic devices to find potential supporters; to keep track of and stay in touch with them; to make it easy for them to donate their money; and to “activate” them to work on the candidate’s behalf.  

There are a lot of factors that determine the success of a political campaign, starting with the amount of money raised.  There are the strategic decisions large and small, the quantity and quality of advertising (especially on TV), the effectiveness of local organizing, personal charisma, the tone of media coverage … oh, and even the candidates’ stances on the issues.

Maybe it’s a stretch to say that Obama won because he did the better job of mobilizing young voters via digital technologies.  But I suspect it’s not a big stretch.

Sheer Lunacy: Taxing the Technologies of Freedom

Imagine that someone came up with an idea to solve the “problem” of information overload (a.k.a. “too much information”) by levying a tax on the technologies that have sparked our information explosion.  Making it too expensive for many people to blog or otherwise send and receive information through digital and Internet-based technologies would not only reduce a lot of superfluous, self-indulgent electronic clutter, but would reverse the fragmentation of opinion threatening our democracy, the theory would go.

Well, someone has come up with just such a scheme.  An environmental attorney named Dusty Horwitt published his incredibly outlandish idea in the Aug. 24 Outlook section of the Washington Post.  (“If Everyone’s Talking, Who Will Listen?”)  He proposes a “progressive energy tax” that would “make the technologies that overproduce information more expensive and less widespread.”

Anyone who has the faintest sensibility about the free flow of information must find this notion not only preposterous, but repulsive.

Forget, for a minute, that such a scheme would be utterly unworkable.  (How, for instance, would the government tax the electricity going into your computer differently than the electricity keeping the beer in your refrigerator cold?)  And we’ll leave it to our economist friends like Harold Furchtgott-Roth to point out the fatal flaws from an economic standpoint.

From a First Amendment perspective, Mr. Horwitt’s proposal is simply horrendous.  Restricting the means of disseminating information is tantamount to restricting information itself.  And information is speech, almost all of which is protected from government interference by the First Amendment. 

It is freedom of speech, and the free flow of information, that distinguishes the United States from China, totalitarian regimes, and most third-world countries.  Restricting the availability of information is a totalitarian tactic that is the antithesis of democracy, not something undertaken in support of it, as Mr. Horwitt alleges. 

Under Mr. Horwitt’s scheme, who would decide how much information was enough? Perhaps we would need a Ministry of Information to make those decisions.  And if the quantity of information were regulated, would the regulation of content be far behind?

In an earlier age, maybe Mr. Horwitt would have favored a stiff tax on printing presses and newsprint.  It’s no coincidence that the Founding Fathers created the First Amendment, because taxing the means of producing speech was a form of government coercion they found utterly repugnant. 

And perhaps it’s no coincidence that Mr. Horwitt never mentions the First Amendment or acknowledges any constitutional concerns about his proposal.  I don’t see how his scheme could possibly pass constitutional muster under the Supreme Court’s O’Brien test, for instance.  Taxing speech isn’t the same as taxing cigarettes or gasoline.

The technologies that Mr. Horwitt would like to tax into oblivion, or at least into submission, are the latest iteration of what Ithiel de Sola Pool famously called the “Technologies of Freedom.”  Give me my newspaper and my traditional radio and TV, but also give me the rollicking, raucous world of the blogosphere, satellite and Internet radio, hundreds of cable and satellite TV channels, and the incredible wealth of information available on the Web.  These are today’s “technologies of freedom” that make our democracy what it is. 

How could anyone be fearful of “too much information”?  Information is the lifeblood of democracy, and the more the better.  The idea of restricting speech by taxing the messenger is repulsive indeed.    

Where Are the First Amendment Champions?

First Amendment advocates must acknowledge a stark reality:  Too many players in the new generation of digital media either do not understand the First Amendment, or think the First Amendment is irrelevant to their piece of the digital action, or both.    
   
This is a dangerous situation because these digital gurus are the future of America’s media.  Are they eager to uphold constitutional principles like freedom of speech?  No.  Their interests revolve around technological innovation, software and hardware applications, content availability, distribution platforms, consumer acceptance, cost per unit … business considerations wherein technology and the marketplace trump policy concerns.  What does this bode for the future of free speech and free press as we know it?
   
Right now, the equipment manufacturers appear to be the standard bearers for the First Amendment rights of the new media.  Their Washington reps at the Consumer Electronics Association aren’t afraid to invoke free-speech arguments in policy circles.  But even within this industry, and certainly among the new media generally, we have yet to see emerge an entrepreneur or company head willing to lead the First Amendment fight in the way that William Paley championed freedom of speech in an earlier era.
   
We need a new generation of First Amendment champions.  They must, of necessity, be recruited widely from the ranks of the new media.  Before they can be champions, however, they must be educated about the First Amendment.  They must realize that the First Amendment will prove utterly and crucially relevant to all manner of digital media in coming years.  And they must be willing to embrace our cherished constitutional guarantee of free speech and free press as their unqualified ally.