On Nov. 16, the Republican Study Committee sent out an internal brief to its more than 170 members and their staff. The memo was a blistering indictment of copyright law.
"Copyright violates nearly every tenet of laissez-faire capitalism," the paper declared, and its irresponsible expansion "destroys entire markets" Polemical arguments, to be sure, but not altogether new ones: a substantial body of literature, mostly from academics on the left--but increasingly on the right as well--argues that the lengthening terms and harsher enforcement of copyright over the last 30 years has taken us from a system that incentivizes innovation to one that stifles it. What was unprecedented here was less what the memo said than where it came from: the conservative caucus of the House of Representatives.
Though taking up copyright reform could be a savvy move for the GOP--it's popular with young people and the issue divides Democratic money in Silicon Valley and Hollywood--the memo ultimately didn't portend any such thing. Indeed, within 24 hours of being released, the document had been retracted, and less than a month later its author, 24-year-old RSC staffer Derek Khanna, had been fired.
Yet the paper was praised by National Review's Reihan Salam and influential Republican strategist and tech guru Patrick Ruffini, among many others. Khanna earned himself a New York Times mention by David Brooks as a "rising star" who bucked his party's typical "lobbyist-driven position" on copyright.
So the memo's public reception wasn't what caused the RSC to balk. Rather individual members of the RSC took the unusual step of putting pressure on the organization to get rid of Khanna. In particular, Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, a Republican representing the outskirts of Nashville, home of the country-music industry, was said to be upset by Khanna's continued employment. Blackburn's chief of staff is a former RIAA lobbyist.
The behind-the-curtain machinations aimed at stifling conservative debate over copyright mimic copyright policymaking more generally. Major intellectual property legislation over the past 30 years has aimed to shore up industries challenged by new digital modes of distribution--and piracy--rather than trying to balance consumers' interests with the needs of innovators.
Khanna sat down with TAC for his first on-the-record interview since being fired to give his take on the situation and discuss where conservative IP-reform efforts might be headed. Though he's out of a job, Khanna has given reformers on the right a martyr and has rallied support from legal scholars, journalists, and blogs on the tech let as well. And now that he can speak freely, he doesn't intend to back down: about a week after our meeting he was headed to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to proclaim the gospel of IP reform.
Like other pro-reform conservatives, Khanna sees the surprise mutiny against the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) in early 2012 as a pivotal moment when elements in the GOP turned against copyright regulation. But killing bills is a far cry from advancing a step-by-step legislative agenda to roll back decades of copyright inflation.
"Opposition is relatively easy. Obviously it's dif cult to take on the interests that were taken on during SOPA, but it's relatively easy," says Khanna. "The big question is whether that movement can be rejiggered to push something positive forward. That's a much more complicated lit, but I think the answer is yes, because there's a lot of consensus--on the left and on the right--for what positive reforms could look like, and even on some specifics."
On the circumstances of his firing, Khanna has been careful not to alienate his former employers and declined to comment on the RSC's claim that his memo was published "without adequate review." He did say, however, that "it was vetted and approved. It was actually approved by additional channels. …