Friday, April 28, 2017

The Politics of Librarians | MUSIC • TECHNOLOGY • POLICY

The lopsided vote this week on HR 1695 (the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act) this week invites an explanation (378-48).  Some people were surprised by just how few votes the opposition got but the spread in our office pool was at least 300 voting “yes”.  Why?

You hear different explanations for this such as Republicans like property rights so they want strong copyright laws and the Democrats like Hollywood, so naturally they’d all support an independent Register of Copyrights.  Neither stereotype is universally true, obviously–House Minority Leader Pelosi voted against the bill.  The more interesting stereotype is the one about Republicans.

While it may be a transitive aspiration (“Republicans like strong property rights so they ought to like copyright”), it is simply not true that all Republicans like strong copyrights no matter how they feel about property rights in general, particularly the Republicans who work at think tanks funded by you know who.  In fact, while libertarians may politically identify as candidates of the Republican Party in certain cases, there are a boatload of libertarians who do not like copyright much at all (the “statutory monopoly” crowd).  Copyright is too long, too broad, too complicated, always too something.  Not to mention that even if they did want strong copyright, this bill is kind of an arcane way to show that enthusiasm.

So it misses the mark, I believe, to think that you can count on Republicans to support a strong copyright bill, or even (and maybe especially) the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act in the Senate when the bill is introduced in that body.  Particularly if you think that they should support it because they are Republicans.  It’s quite unclear to me that political party affiliation has anything to do with it.

I do believe that there are two main reasons why the vote was so lopsided in the House that are worth noting in the much more potentially procedurally treacherous Senate (home of the anonymous hold) where unanimous consent is used as a sword as frequently as it is a shield.  First and foremost, the House bill was successful because it was carried by Chairman Goodlatte and Ranking Member Conyers, masters of the legislative process.  When that 27-1 vote happened on the bill’s second reading in the Judiciary Committee, it should have told you right then that Goodlatte and Conyers meant business, and that was when the spread went to 300.

Chairs of Congressional committees are not in the habit of having their bills voted down.  So there’s that.  We need to make sure that we have good legislating on the Senate side.

But I think a necessary factor was that the opponents overplayed their hand as they have been doing for years.  This surfaced in two forms.  One was the mudslinging by Rep. Lofgren (and the Google Shill Chorus) against Maria Pallante, the former Register who was, in my view, the subject of an unlawful constructive termination by the Librarian of Congress for starters.  Plus, the idea that some star chamber inspector general report that is full of loose ends was somehow going to undo years and years of trust and respect for Pallante that started well before her appointment as Register was just preposterous.  Nobody should have bought it, and by the look of the vote, most did not.

The other factor is that tech industry lobbyists have been in every Member’s face for years,  including with SOPA (aka the apotheosis of fake news).  When you have these people jumping in your stuff every minute if you take a wrong breath, it gets really, really, really tiresome.

If you want to find a factor that explains the lopsided vote on this particular bill, it starts with people who overplayed their hand and couldn’t deliver, and it ends with Members being sick and tired of being overlobbied.

Is the vote a “rebuke” of the Librarian of Congress?  Maybe, but I’d pass on the stereotypes when there’s a far simpler explanation.

Nobody likes to get jacked around–and that’s a bipartisan issue.


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