William Patry is no copyright radical. He's the author of some of the major reference texts on copyright, books that most copyright lawyers would have on their bookcases, books like Patry on Copyright. But Patry -- once copyright counsel to the US House of Representatives and policy planning advisor to the US Register of Copyrights -- is furious with the current state of copyright law, and he's marshalled his considerable knowledge of copyright and combined it with his considerable talent as a writer to produce a new book, How to Fix Copyright, a book that is incandescent in every sense of the word.
How to Fix Copyright is a superbly argued, enraging book on the state of copyright law today, one of the great evidence-free zones in policymaking, where every measure is taken on faith and whose results are never seriously measured (except by tame, partisan researchers who always conclude that more draconian laws are in order). Patry dismantles the arguments for "strong" copyright protection like a top chef deboning a fish, deftly carving away the industry rhetoric and leaving behind the evidence.
The evidence is grim. Bad copyright law, enacted on the basis of flimsy, cooked statistics (or worse, purely anaecdotal "evidence") is not serving to enrich artists, though it is funneling enormous wealth to their corporate publishers, studios and labels (especially the executive suites in those firms, where compensation in the tens of millions is handed out by firms that are "dying of piracy"). These laws are dismantling our culture, criminalizing our children and neighbors, attacking our cherished institutions, and distorting the progress of poor nations around the world.
Throughout the text, Patry offers two important (but rare) commodities: facts, and solutions. Patry's work is heavily footnoted, and his footnotes are generous, sometimes lengthy discursions, often citing primary, peer-reviewed works. Not cooked industry statistics, but impartial evidence from economists, social scientists, and creators modern and ancient. As to solutions, Patry notes that his publisher wanted him to include a list of bullet-point solutions at the end of the book, an approach he rejected because these aren't simple problems -- they're difficult and nuanced, and so are his solutions, so they're best couched in the arguments they refer to. I agree with this approach, though two of Patry's suggestions are simple enough: first, stop making new copyright laws until we know whether the current ones are working (we'll have to define what they're supposed to be doing first!); and second, make no new laws without a strong, impartial evidentiary basis.
Funnily enough, these two suggestions do mark Patry out as a copyright radical by modern standards. Copyright is supposed to be an unassailable doctrine of faith, and asking to see the evidence of supposed gigantic monetary and job losses due to piracy, or supposed gigantic contributions to the GDP and balance of trade as a result of the industries, makes you a loony heretic in the contemporary debate.
Patry currently works as Senior Copyright Counsel at Google, and he is also a clarinetist -- in other words, he is both well-versed in technology and an artist himself. This puts him in a nearly unique position among copyright lawyers, and it's no wonder that he's one of copyright's best scholars. And while How to Fix Copyright is a book full of anger, it's never shrill or strident (though it's a good deal less calm than Patry's previous popular law book, Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars).
Published 10:31 am Fri, Dec 9, 2011
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