Professor Jessica Litman of the University of Michigan (and author of “Digital Copyright”) recently spoke at the Duke Law School in a lecture sponsored by Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain. Although I was traveling on the day of her lecture, I had a chance last week to listen to the webcast, and I was especially struck by her comment that the U.S. is in the early stages of a copyright revision cycle. Recognizing that the last such cycle took nearly twenty years, it still seems appropriate to ask, assuming that Prof. Litman is correct, whether or not this would be good news.
At her Collectanea blog, our scholarly communications colleague at the University of Texas, and well-known copyright attorney, Georgia Harper has been emphasizing new business models that are developing around intellectual property and discussing whether or not those new models bode well for educational and consumer uses of protected material. See her posts here and here for this excellent discussion. Litman’s suggestion, however, that we are starting to see movement toward a revised copyright law, raises a similar question about how a new law might be better or worse for education and for consumers.
With no details at hand, detailed speculation is useless, of course, but it is still possible to take note of one possible dynamic. It is certainly true that, in the piecemeal amendments to the copyright law that we have seen in recent years, consumers and educators have not fared well. Is there any reason to think we might do better in a complete overhaul? I think there is. When Congress is considering a small change to the copyright act, they tend, I suspect, to listen to the industry voices that they hear from most regularly. When time and attention is limited, one pays attention to the sources of information and opinion that are familiar and close at hand. But in the longer process of a complete revision, it is likely that other voices will get to the table and will be heard more thoroughly; education groups and consumer advocates would, I hope, have a more complete opportunity to make their case about how copyright helps and hinders them, both to Congress and to an increasingly interested public.
I don’t know if Prof. Litman is right about a new revision cycle or not, but until I have reason to believe otherwise I am going to treat the possibility as a reason for optimism.