March 4, 2009  ·  Lessig

Hoyer to W.H.: Hands off our earmarks - Alex Isenstadt - POLITICO.com

Herein brews perhaps the first important battle of reform for this President. I have long thought the President should resign his membership in the Democratic Party — not because he doesn’t or shouldn’t share the values of the Democratic Party, but because it is time we recognize we need a President above either partisanship (which got us the “Contract with America”) or bipartisanship (which got us the Iraq War). But Hoyer’s behavior here makes the point most starkly.

Earmarks are a cancer: Not because they consume a large part of the budget — they don’t; not because we shouldn’t be spending money — we should. But because they feed the system of corruption that is the way Washington works. They are the cornerstone of a system feeding the worst of the lobbying mafia (another plug here for So Damn Much Money), which itself is the cornerstone of K St. capitalism. It was a mistake for Obama not to join McCain in targeting them during the campaign. It is a fantastic thing that he is beginning to target them now.

Cancers can be benign or malignant. This cancer is malignant when it feeds K St. capitalism. It is benign when it is simply a locally informed direction to how the government’s money (aka, the people’s money) should be spent.

And apropo of the benign form of this cancer: I’ve agreed to help Congresswoman Jackie Speier with an experiment for earmark reform. (Decidedly and clearly progressive) Congresswoman Speier voted against the appropriations bill because of the earmarks in the bill. But as reported in the SF Chronicle:

Speier is now trying a novel experiment: She’s put together a citizen’s oversight panel to recommend projects for federal funding, chaired by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, a critic of earmarks, and including local elected, business and labor leaders. If the model works, she may offer legislation to expand it nationally.

The panel will meet in 3 or 4 public hearings over the next month of so to review earmark proposals. We will then report our recommendations back to her.

The citizen panel idea is completely Speier’s. It is a brilliant idea with enormous potential. More on the potential soon.

October 6, 2008  ·  Lessig

Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren tells the (incredible) story of a rule imposed on witnesses who wanted to testify in a credit card hearing that would permit the credit card companies to reveal their private financial data. “Only fair,” defenders of the rule stated, such as Congrssman Bachus (R-AL). But when Warren asked whether the credit card companies would have to provide support for the factual claims they made, the answer was silence. Only consumers have to waive their privacy to testify. Credit card companies get to say whatever they want, without having to establish any factual basis.

October 3, 2008  ·  Lessig

A research assistant, Sina Kian, observes:

When Pres. Bush and Sec. Paulson proposed a bailout, it was three pages. When the House was done with it, it was over 100. When the Senate voted on it last night, it was over 400. I thought you’d be interested in reading about some of the earmarks that were slapped on. [McCain criticizing]

Particularly bizarre was the tax exemption for wooden arrows used by children. In any event, it’s sad to see a government so addicted to earmarks that it can’t even handle a crisis without involving them.

April 29, 2007  ·  Lessig

So when I was talking to others about the petition to the RNC/DNC, I was frankly hesitant just because it seemed so obvious. Why would any network resist? Then I read MSNBC’s rules for the use of its recent debate, and realized (once again) just how clueless I am.

As reported by Jeff Jarviz at BuzzMachine (and cross posted at Prezvid), here’s MSNBC’s regulation of the use of video of the Democratic debate:

USAGE RULES FOR USE OF AUDIO OR VIDEO OF MSNBC MATERIAL RULES FOR “THE SOUTH CAROLINA DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATES DEBATE” FROM MSNBC:

(The following rules apply to all media organizations that are not part of NBC)

News organizations, including radio, network television, cable television and local television may use excerpts of “The South Carolina Democratic Candidates Debate” subject to the following restrictions (internet use is not permitted):

1. An unobstructed onscreen credit “MSNBC” must appear during each debate excerpt and remain on screen for the entire excerpt.

2. Each debate excerpt must be introduced with an audio credit to MSNBC.

3. No excerpt may air in any medium until the live debate concludes at 8:30 pm ET.

4. No more than a combined total of 2 minutes of excerpts may be chosen for use during the period from the end of the live debate (8:30 pm ET) until 1:00 am ET on Friday, April 27. After 1:00 am ET, Friday, April 27, a total of 10 minutes may be selected (including any excerpts aired before 1:00AM). The selected excerpts may air as often as desired but the total of excerpts chosen may not exceed the limits outlined.

5. No excerpts may be aired after 8:30 pm on Saturday, May 26th. Excerpts may not be archived. Any further use of excerpts is by express permission of MSNBC only.

6. All debate excerpts must be taped directly from MSNBC’s cablecast or obtained directly from MSNBC and may not be obtained from other sources, such as satellite or other forms of transmission. No portions of the live event not aired by MSNBC may be used.

A feed of MSNBC’s telecast of the debate will be provided (details below), additionally limited audio/video mults will be available on site in the media center.

This is ridiculous. I’m grateful to everyone who wrote to RNC/DNC. I’ve spoken to the DNC. I’ve not yet been able to get the RNC to return a telephone call.

But this issue should move beyond the parties to the candidates. No candidate should agree to be a part of a debate broadcast by an organization that purports to exercise this type of control over the video of the debate. No candidate, that is, that understands this century.

March 13, 2007  ·  Lessig

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Ok, so just about 10 years after the content industry got Congress to adopt one of the most sweeping changes in American copyright law (aka, the DMCA), the content industry has decided that it doesn’t like one part of that law — the Safe Harbor Provision that protects sites such as YouTube. But rather than go to Congress to get them to change the law, the content industry, knowing Congress would not change the law, turns to its new best friend — the common law of copyright, as articulated by the Supreme Court. See, e.g., Grokster. Why burden Congress with the hassle of law making when you’ve got a Supreme Court eager to jump in and legislate? At least, that is, when there’s no Constitutional issue at stake. When the Constitution’s at stake, then it is a matter for — you guessed it — Congress. See, e.g., Eldred v. Ashcroft.

Note Count IV in the complaint – “Inducement of Copyright Infringement” – aka, the monster Grokster created.

This case — if it is really intended as a law suit and not a move in a bargaining game — should be decided on the meaning of s512(c). The question will be whether YouTube has the “ability to control” uploads before they are identified as infringing. Viacom complains that YouTube shifts to it the burden of identifying infringing content. Not true. The DMCA does. Until at least Congress amends it, or the Supreme Court adds some new common law of copyright to the statute books.

January 25, 2007  ·  Lessig

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So as noted by some, Kahle v. Gonzales was decided Monday. After the oral argument, the result was not a surprise. The reasoning of the opinion, however, is. (I’m going to restrict these comments to part I of the opinion).

A clue that we were in for this sort of surprise was the question asked again and again by Chief Judge Schroeder, how was this case different from Eldred? This was one of those “huh?” moments in the argument. For sure, there was one similarity — I was arguing this case, and I argued Eldred. But beyond that similarity, the cases were plainly different.

In Eldred, among other requests, we asked the Court to apply First Amendment review to a statute that extended existing copyright terms. In this case, we were challenging the shift from an opt-in system of copyright (where you get a copyright if and only if you take affirmative steps) to an opt-out system (where copyright automatically covers everything). (These two claims are obviously different — we could just as easily be attacking the opt-in/opt-out distinction prospectively, rather than retrospectively. There’s thus no necessary connection between them.)

In Eldred, we were applying ordinary First Amendment law to say that this speech regulation ought to get First Amendment review. In this case, we were applying the rule announced in Eldred, that First Amendment review was limited to changes in the “traditional contours of copyright protection.”

So again, the question, how we the cases different?, was puzzling.

That puzzle was not lifted by reading the opinion. Though the Court acknowledged that there had been a change from an opt-in to an opt-out system of copyright, the court held that because Eldred had resolved a “similar” claim, it would not “ignore the clear holding of Eldred” (about, apparently, not the same claim, but a “similar” claim.)

I don’t quite get this negative horse-shoe principle of judicial decision making (you’re close enough to a losing case to lose). For the claim in Eldred is neither “similar” in form, and is certainly not “similar” in substance.

First form: Again, in Eldred, we asked the Court to test the extensions of existing copyrights under the First Amendment. The Court declined our request — not because, as the government essentially argued, the only First Amendment question for copyright laws is whether Congress had changed “fair use” or “idea/expression,” but because the Court found that Congress had a tradition of extending existing terms whenever it extended terms prospectively, and it was not going to upset that tradition. As the Court thus wrote, so long as Congress doesn’t change the “traditional contours of copyright protection” “no further First Amendment review” is required.

This is, as I’ve written before, a very sensible, Scalia-like test. It essentially says: Where there’s 200 years of tradition behind a practice, we’re not going to question it now. But when Congress changes that tradition, this new regulation, like any regulation of speech, should be subject to ordinary First Amendment review.

Our claim in Kahle was fundamentally different. We were not arguing that First Amendment review should apply to a 200 year old tradition. We were instead asking that First Amendment review be applied to a radical change in that tradition. Beginning in 1976, Congress had changed perhaps the most significant tradition in American copyright law when it moved from an opt-in to an opt-out system. For 186 years, copyright applied only where the copyright holder took affirmative steps to claim it. That requirement profoundly affected the scope and reach of copyright. Our claim was not that Congress couldn’t make such a change. But instead, it was simply that any such change must be tested under the First Amendment.

The “traditional contours of copyright protection” claim was new in Eldred. Ours was the second case to raise it since Eldred. As nothing in Eldred was based upon an argument that Congress had changed a “tradition,” Eldred clearly could not have held anything vis-a-vis a claim about a changed tradition. Logically speaking — or perhaps better, accurately speaking — there’s thus no way that Eldred’s “clear holding” could have touched the claim plaintiffs made here.

Substance: But again, the Court was moved by its apparent view of substance, not form. It said our claim was “similar,” not the same. And if it isn’t similar in form (as I’ve just argued), the Court must have believed it was similar in substance.

Indeed, that’s the plain import of the 5 paragraph section of the opinion addressing the claim. Because the Court in Eldred had said that the CTEA was simply “plac[ing] existing and future copyrights in parity,” any statute that did that was essentially the same.

But again, Eldred didn’t say the CTEA was exempt from First Amendment review because it put “existing and future copyrights in parity.” It said the CTEA was exempt because there was a long tradition of putting “existing and future copyrights in parity.” Here, there obviously was no long tradition. Our whole point was that the tradition had changed.

More fundamentally, even if there is a “similarity” in the result (i.e., that terms for existing copyrights and future copyrights are in parity), there is a radical difference in the effect of these two changes. The Court thought in substance, this was the same in Eldred. In substance, however, Eldred is but a jot compared to the massive change effected by the move from an opt-in to an opt-out system of copyright.

I should have thought that difference was intuitive and obvious. It is obvious I was wrong about that. So I’ve been struggling since Monday to think about a way to show, graphically, the difference between an opt-in and opt-out regime, as compared with the change effected by Eldred. That difference is what the above graphs try to demonstrate. The green in the graph is the simulated stock of works in the public domain from 1791-1978; the red is the simulated stock of works under copyright from 1791 to 1978.

As you can see, there is huge difference in the effect on the public domain in moving from a regime with formalities (e.g., an opt-in system) to a regime without formalities. And there is a tiny difference (not even perceptible) on the long term public domain in moving from a system that permits retrospective extensions (what I call “Eldred Extensions” to one that does not.)

Why does this difference matter? Because if you accept the Supreme Court’s view that copyright is to be an “engine of free expression,” by creating incentives to create and spread new work, the difference between an opt-in and opt-out regime is that the opt-out regime burdens a vast amount of speech with absolutely no connection to this “engine of free expression.” What the “filter” (as the 9th Circuit put it) of formalities did was to remove copyright regulation where presumptively it was doing no further good — where the work had no continuing commercial value. It thus removed regulation over precisely that speech that could not benefit from copyrights’ regulation anymore.

These cases are thus neither “similar” in the formal claims they make, nor in the actual effect on the public domain that each attacks. The only thing similar, again, is that I’ve been involved with the cases, and that the courts can’t yet be bothered to reason seriously about these matters.

These graphs are the product of a model I developed. The model is plainly beta, and I’d be really grateful for any help in verifying it, or in any ideas about how better to describe (graphically) the significance of the difference. If you’ve got talents in this area, please read the Extended Entry. There you’ll find a link to the model and an explanation of how it works. I’m eager to be shown my mistakes here, or a better way to make this obvious point.

The model simulates the effect on the stock of work in copyright and in the public domain from 1791 to 1978. During that period, copyright was an opt-in system of regulation. During that period, Congress twice extended existing copyright terms. (In 1831, Congress increased the initial term of copyright from 14 to 28 years; works in their existing term could opt-in to that extension. In 1909, Congress increased the renewal term of copyright from 14 to 28 years. Works in their renewal term could get the benefit of that extension if they registered for the extension).

I’ve built the model so you can simulate the effect on the stock of works in the public domain or under copyright if you switched off formalities (you do that by assuming 100% of the works published satisfied formalities). I’ve also built it so you can simulate the effect on the stock of works in the public domain or under copyright if you switched off the retroactive extension of existing copyrights (by setting the % taking advantage of the extension to the normal rates for renewal in with the 1831 extension, and 0% for the 1909 extension). Note, the model does not assume anything about any endogenous effects. For example, you might think that eliminating formalities would increase the rate of publication. I’ve not tried to specify that, but the model does allow you to change the growth of publications.

Again, this is a beta model. I’d be very grateful for any errors identified, or for a better specification of the same. After a review by a couple friends, I will post any corrections to this. At that time, I’ll also include any corrections noted in the comments.

You can access the model here.

And you can access a description of the variables here.