Copyright policy here and abroad

Earlier this month, Jonathon Band, who, among his other accomplishments, is the principle attorney for the U.S. Library Copyright Alliance, posted a report of a talk he gave in Seoul, South Korea at a conference on “The Creative Economy and Intellectual Property.”  In response to an invitation to talk about how U.S. copyright policy helped to foster a creative economy, Band made an interesting distinction, one that caught my attention and made me nod my head in surprised agreement.

Band’s basic distinction is this: U.S. domestic policy does help to foster a creative economy because it seeks to balance copyright protections, which do support creative pursuits, with exceptions that limit the scope of claims to copyright infringement.  These exceptions are every bit as to encourage innovation as the protections themselves are, but U.S. policy about copyright in other countries does not similarly support a creative economy.

We can identify two reasons why the U.S approach to copyright in other countries does not support creativity and innovation, based on a distinction Band makes between process and substance.

In terms of process, the U.S. foreign policy about copyright is entirely in the hands of the Executive branch of government, which is very susceptible to lobbying from the traditional content industries.  The important role that the entertainment industries play in any Presidential election is just one reason for this understandable, if unfortunate, influence on the Executive branch.  And because that branch is solely responsible for our foreign relations, we are often in the position, as Band illustrates nicely, of advocating for much stricter copyright provisions abroad than we have, or are allowed to have, at home.

Part of the reason our domestic law is more balanced is because of the role of the courts, who are much less easily influenced by lobbying and who have a great role in maintaining the copyright balance, as we have seen in the important string of fair use decisions that have been coming out of courts all over the country in recent years. But U.S. courts have no role in shaping the kinds of policies we advocate for in other nations.

On the side of substance, our copyright policy toward other countries is determined and expressed by trade representatives, whose goal, naturally, is to improve the market for U.S. products around the world.  Thus their copyright focus is on (primarily) entertainment products that already exist, and which, they believe, must be strictly protected from all kinds of unauthorized use, even if those uses would be allowed in the U.S.  So at the same time that U.S. courts are developing a broad view of fair use that supports digital innovation and new industries, our trade reps are vigorously campaigning to prevent any other nation from getting the (correct) idea that fair use is a good idea if you want to support a creative economy.

To continue this distinction a little farther, I want to look at two other items that came to my attention this week.

On the domestic front, there is this info-graphic about fair use from the Association of Research Libraries, which is a great resource for starting a conversation with academic librarians and faculty members about the space that our domestic courts are opening for innovation, scholarship and creativity with their expanding approach to fair use.  Conveying to our communities that fair use is good news from the copyright front, and that considered, responsible decisions about how to use materials in teaching and scholarship are also quite likely to be good decisions about fair use, is an important role on campus.

On the international side, consider this press release from the European Commission suggesting that open access has reached a “tipping point” in Europe.  The European Community, of course, has been a leader in promoting open access to research and scholarship.  And it is helpful to see open access as a way to simply move past the pressure that the EC and other nations receive from the U.S. to strengthen copyright protections and weaken user rights.  Open access is a way for copyright holders — remember that in spite of the rhetoric, it is authors on our campuses who are the original copyright holders in virtually all works of scholarship — to exercise their rights in ways that are most beneficial to them and to avoid many of the restrictions imposed by secondary copyright holders on access and reuse.  It allows scholars to simply ignore the attempts by industry and the U.S trade reps to ratchet copyright protections ever higher and to use their own copyrights in a way that is true to copyright’s core purposes of supporting creativity and innovation.  Indeed, by making our works of scholarship openly accessible, we provide much needed access to scholars and others, especially in the developing world, access that will be denied if those users have to rely on national policies that are shaped by pressure from the U.S.

In different ways, both the growing consensus around fair use and the open access movement are responses to the issues that Jon Band raised in his talk.  Both are supports for a creative economy.  But it is open access, where authors hold on to their copyrights in order to use their works for the best interests of themselves, their discipline and scholarship in general, that has the most potential to foster growth and innovation both here and abroad.