After a popular online campaign to legalize cellphone unlocking, which allows a consumer to change the settings on a phone in order to use it on a different wireless network, the president is about to sign the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act into law. It will legalize unlocking until the Librarian of Congress, who administers the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, reviews exemptions again next year.
The law is a significant victory for copyright reform activists like Derek Khanna, whose 2012 memo for the Republican Study Committee on how current copyright law stifles the free market set the tone for reform (after it got him fired). Khanna has called the ban on cellphone unlocking a denial of “a fundamental tenet of property rights; which is the ability to modify your own property.”
I spoke to Khanna to learn more about where the copyright reform movement will go from here.
A Democratic president standing up for consumer choice certainly represents a sort of conversational victory, but the law itself is something of a temporary fix. Are you happy with how the bill turned out?
Yes. It’s a short-term bill—this needed to be addressed urgently—but at the same time, Congress is considering other long-term fixes. To that end, there are ongoing copyright hearings in the House Judiciary Committee.
The tech field is fast-paced, while American government is purposefully slow-moving by design and by politics. How can Congress ensure the laws are keeping pace with the technologies they regulate?
The particular problem is that Washington hears only one narrow perspective on these issues. A lot of what I call “the forces of the status quo” have lobbyists that make their voices heard. Entrepreneurs and smaller business owners aren’t really being represented, so in Washington they almost don’t know what their regulations are preventing.
As you noted in your cover story for TAC earlier this summer, Republicans only took action on this legislation after the White House’s endorsement, which in turn followed a public outpouring of support. Will it always take that kind of massive push to get congressional Republicans to move forward on regulatory reform?
I hope not. I hope Republicans take the initiative. Our whole campaign here was based on the free market, which Republicans run on across the country. But they’re one step behind on technology, which is a shame, because that’s where the modern economy is.
But they’re starting to turn around on this. Congressmen like Thomas Massie and Jason Chaffetz are real leaders on this issue. The Young Guns Network, which represents Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor, included a section on regulatory reform in their “Room to Grow” report. It goes out of the way to say we need wholesale copyright reform and makes a very enthusiastic plea for IP reform. It even directly cites my RSC memo. So these things take a long time, but there are real successes.
Tech policy is a straightforward way to win over the youth vote, but Republicans don’t seem to have noticed. Do you think that disconnect is purely generational? Can young conservatives just hope the party grows out of it?
I don’t know if it’s generational, but I know that it’s changing.
According to the College Republicans National Committee, in 2012, “young people simply felt the GOP had nothing to offer.” Kristen Soltis Anderson concluded, “There is a brand. …And it’s that we’re not in the 21st century.” That’s pretty stark. But the thing that polls best among young people is talking about innovation and technology. This isn’t just good policy, it’s good politics.
Those congressional offices never knew what hit them with SOPA/PIPA. For some people that was a seminal experience, the first time they had ever engaged in the political process and were able to make a change. And now with unlocking we have the first time an online campaign was able to actually introduce legislation. There is a whole generation of people who see these policies as really stifling innovation.
What’s next for copyright reformers?
There is a lot of work to be done in copyright reform still. How long should copyright terms be? The founders set it at 14 years and today it can be over 120. That’s kind of ridiculous in a world where every text, every tweet, every Facebook post is copyrighted longer than anyone who writes them will ever live.
The phone unlocking bill is great. But other issues are very closely related and if Congress doesn’t act soon, we’re going to see the ‘Internet of things’ collapse. A great example is that the next Keurig coffee machine is expected to have a digital chip technology built in such that you can’t use any other coffee pod. It would be a felony to use any other coffee pod with it! The technology would be used to stifle competition in the coffee market. This is just the tip of the iceberg because the benefits for existing businesses are overwhelming.
Any final thoughts?
There has been a sea of change in policymaking on copyright on the right since 2012, it’s almost impossible to find any conservatives, other than lobbyists for industry, opposed to substantial reform. The conservative position is we need to restore our founding principles on copyright.