iStock_000021789202XSmallTestimony from copyright hearing highlights what’s at stake for content creators

On Thursday (July 25th) the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet held another hearing on copyright reform, “Innovation in America: The Role of Copyrights,” with the following witness invited to testify:

Unfortunately, to some in the press–who the witnesses were seems to have overshadowed what they may have actually said.   In The Washington Post Andrea Peterson bemoaned the lack of “innovators” on the witness list.

Innovators are almost entirely absent from the list. The witnesses include the executive directors of the Copyright Alliance and the American Society of Media Photographers, and the general counsel of Getty Images. These groups represent established copyright interests that are likely to resist any serious reforms to copyright law…Completely absent: representatives from the information technology industry, whose innovations have transformed the market for copyrighted works over the last two decades, and who have repeatedly argued that overly-broad copyright law has stifled innovation.

Since Ms. Peterson covers technology policy and “…also delves into the societal impacts of technology access and how innovation is intertwined with cultural development” for the Post, I find it curious that she never actually wrote about what took place at the hearing itself.  Couldn’t she at least have read the transcript or watch the webcast and “delve” into what was actually said  rather than simply complain about the witness list?

At the end of her not very informative piece Ms. Peterson noted that there’s  another hearing scheduled for next week that seems likely to be heavily tech-centric so I’m not sure why all the fuss (and headline) to begin with. According a press release issued by the committee on July 18th “The next two hearings, which will be held prior to the August district work period, will focus on the positive roles copyrights and technology play in innovation in the U.S.” 

Given that the committee’s initial hearing in May featured academics and bureaucrats it seems that their grouping of witnesses has been purposefully crafted to represent distinct segments of the copyright interest group pie.   While one can certainly take issue with this rigid approach, it’s not as though the technology “industry” will be left out.

As for Peterson’s assertion that yesterday’s panelists represented “established copyright interests” and thus didn’t genuinely represent “innovators,” I beg to differ. It’s the same old unenlightened spin (often amplified by tech interests) that somehow content creators are not innovators.  For anyone who did actually watch or read the yesterday’s testimony, this myth that was repeatedly and effectively challenged.

The Copyright Alliance’s Sandra Aistars may not be a creative artist, but she represents our interests with clarity and conviction.  In her testimony before the committee she carefully outlined just how important copyright protection is for individual creators and the insidious damage piracy (for profit) is having on our livelihoods:

Eric Hart, a maker of theatrical props and author from Burlington,North Carolina,recently shared his challenges with us. Earlier this year, after several years of researching,writing and assembling all the necessary technical information, including setting up and shooting more than 500 illustrative photographs, Eric’s first book The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theatre, Film, and TV was published by Focal Press. The book is a unique, comprehensive reference for prop makers that provides innovative approaches to solving problems. Special attention was paid to the details of its design and layout to ensure that it can easily be used in a workshop. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, it was pirated almost immediately upon its release, and many of the sites on which it appears are supported by advertising by major brands.

Mr. Hart  himself published an op-ed in The Hill to coincide with yesterday’s hearing.  In his piece, “The Need for Copyright Protection Hits Home” he described the time and effort he put into publishing his book:

While my book, titled The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theatre, Film, and TV, was published earlier this year, I first started planning and researching it in 2008. I began a blog a month later in January 2009, to practice my writing and build an audience. But nothing could have prepared me for the amount of work it would take to craft a full book. I worked nearly every day for a year to complete the manuscript but still felt like I could have used more time.

He then goes on to relay an experience (sadly) familiar to those of us who create content–how his work was immediately pirated (for profit) online and asks that Congress be mindful just how important copyright is in protecting our rights as creators:

While we do have laws intended to protect creators like me, we seem to live in a culture that pretends piracy has no real victims. It’s important to remind everyone the amount of work that goes into the creative works that are so useful and valuable to us. I only wrote a single book, but there are those who devote every day of their lives to writing and creating, and they will not be able to do that if their work is not protected from those who decide to give away those works for free without the creator’s permission. When we devalue the creative work, we are devaluing the act of creation and the act of working, both of which are vital to a free and prosperous culture.

Ms. Aistars went on to urge the committee to evaluate copyright from the creator’s perspective and to understand it as being 1) a matter of  “empowerment,” 2) a matter of “choice,” and 3) a matter of “freedom.”

First, copyright is about empowerment. A copyright belongs to the author from the time a work is created and recorded in some tangible form, regardless of whether the author has registered it or taken any formal action. A copyright may be the only asset the author has in a negotiation with a distributor, label, or other corporation. It opens the door for an economic negotiation. If you weaken copyright or make it harder for the author to obtain or maintain its protections, you weaken the author’s negotiating position, as well as the value proposition for the distributor.

Second, copyright is about choice. Because copyright exists in a work and belongs to the author from the time the work is recorded, it enables the author to choose what he or she wishes to do with it. She can use a work in multiple ways simultaneously. She can license the use of the work commercially to support herself and continue investing in new projects, while also making the work available for free to other non-commercial users to support a cause she believes in. These choices allow for a broader variety of business models to develop,which increases healthy competition among innovators and benefits consumers.

The author can also choose not to license his or her work in certain circumstances. Sometimes the non-economic choices an author makes by enforcing a copyright are the most important ones. Matt Herron, a civil rights era photographer who we work with explained to me once that the reason copyright matters to him so much is that it enables him to keep his collection of photographs of the Selma to Montgomery march together, and it ensures that the history of that period will be passed down to future generations as a coherent whole — without images missing because they are controlled by someone else, and without images having been devalued because they were licensed for commercial purposes.

Finally, copyright is about freedom. It is core to protecting our First Amendment rights of freedom of expression. It also gives authors the freedom to create and to thrive, and the freedom to create free from outside influence. “Asthe founders of this country were wise enough to see, the most important elements of any civilization include its independent creators – its authors, composers, and artists –who create as a matter of personal initiative and spontaneous expression rather than as a result of patronage or subsidy.”7

Eugene Mopsick, who himself worked as a professional photographer for 32 years before becoming Executive Director of ASMP, also emphasized the importance of copyright for individual creators in his testimony:

ASMP is the oldest and largest trade association of its kind in the world. ASMP’s members are primarily freelance imaging professionals, creating images — both still and moving — for publication in advertising, editorial, fine art and other commercial markets.

Simply put, ASMP’s members and professional photographers like them create many and probably most of the images that the American public sees every day: they create this country’s visual heritage. These images communicate the horrors of war and genocide, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”, the events of every day life and the joy of discovery and travel. They create emotion, document history, and expand our knowledge. Much of the incentive to create, innovate and the ability to control the sale and license of these works would be lost without copyright.

Imagine National Geographic, The Sunday New York Times and its Magazine, Rolling Stone, Travel and Leisure, Food and Wine, Saveur, Sports Illustrated all without photographs! And not just any photographs, but photographs created by professionals to fulfill the needs of their clients, created under various conditions, on schedule, processed and prepared for reproduction. Stunning images that consistently stretch the bounds of creativity and innovation. Each assignment is a challenge to create something new, never seen before. Communicate light, emotion, the facets of a commercial product, the history and location of an event. Professional photography enriches and opens our eyes to new worlds making us better informed and more sensitive to the issues and conflicts occurring around us…

…Again, in order for professionals to be able to sustain a livelihood, they need to be able to control the sale and license of their works so that they may receive fair compensation for their use. Copyright is the cornerstone of this equation.

Although it’s not helpful to the copyleft’s arguments justifying their views on “free culture”, the truth is that whether we’re talking about a Los Angeles production company employing hundreds of workers,  or an independent author who toils on his own to write a book–copyright law is fundamental to the well-being of both.  Like it or not, culture is not “free” to create.   I thought Sandra Aistars and the rest of those who testified made that fact abundantly clear.   It’s well worth taking the time to read through their testimony.

In contrast, and apparently based solely on the witness list, Ms. Peterson likened yesterday’s hearing to one held for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) though remarked that hearing “at least it included a representative from Google opposing the measure.”

While I’m not privy to who will be invited to next week’s hearing, I have no doubt that Google’s interests will be well represented.  After all, the company isn’t expanding its presence Washington D.C. and moving closer to the U.S. Capitol for nothing.  Just last week the Washington Post reported:

Google is expanding its Washington offices and relocating them to within a couple blocks of the U.S. Capitol.

The tech giant signed a lease for 55,000 square feet at 25 Massachusetts Ave. NW, according to the building’s owner, Republic Properties. The building is about a block away from Union Station. The lease is for about 25,000 more square feet than Google currently has at 1101 New York Ave. NW.

The technology sector is one of the few industries in the Washington area in which companies are currently growing and adding space.

How does that old story go?

Little Red Riding Hood: “Oh granny, what big eyes you have!”…

Big Bad Wolf: “All the better to see you with my dear….”

We all know how that one ended up….