One post-election question up for debate is where the Republican Party would go to try and capture the areas of the electorate they cannot penetrate – particularly minorities and the youth vote. The watered-down version of the DREAM Act suggested a policy path for reaching some segments of the minority electorate. And for about 24 hours this weekend, it looked like Republicans would make their pitch to the youth vote on copyright law.

Late on Friday, the Republican Study Committee, the far-right caucus in the House, put out a policy paper on copyright reform that really sought to upend traditional notions of the issue, which in the US really skews in favor of copyright holders. Concluding that copyright law often destroys rather than distorts markets, the paper, which received high praise from the tech community, made several key points about the nature of copyrights, attacking several myths. Here’s an example:

That the purpose of copyright is to compensate the creator. No, it correctly notes, it’s about benefiting the public:

Thus, according to the Constitution, the overriding purpose of the copyright system is to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.” In today’s terminology we may say that the purpose is to lead to maximum productivity and innovation.

This is a major distinction, because most legislative discussions on this topic, particularly during the extension of the copyright term, are not premised upon what is in the public good or what will promote the most productivity and innovation, but rather what the content creators “deserve” or are “entitled to” by virtue of their creation. This lexicon is appropriate in the realm of taxation and sometimes in the realm of trade protection, but it is inappropriate in the realm of patents and copyrights.

This is the opposite of how stakeholders view the issue, and seeks to exploit what could be an actual divide on policy. Democrats have cultivated Hollywood as a fundraising source for decades, and out of this grew an adherence to copyright laws that favors rights holders. This, as the RSC report intimates, amounts to rent seeking, and can be used to stifle innovation in favor of locking in profits. It also creates large rights-holding corporations that can edge out their competitors. “We frankly may have no idea how it actually hurts innovation, because we don’t know what isn’t able to be produced as a result of our current system,” the report notes. And the RSC offered several reform ideas, including changing the statutory damages rules (copyright holders invariably seek the maximum penalty and call all copryright infringement “willful”), expanding “fair use,” and creating disincentives for unlimited copyright extensions.

The Stop Online Piracy Act proposal of last year, which was defeated after public outcry, sought to take copyrights to their extreme and shut down any website or user-generated media source which had copyrighted material placed on it by any user. In the debate over SOPA, once constituents badgered Congress on the issue, Republicans moved away from the bill much more quickly than Democrats. This has the potential to really cause a split, with Republicans taking the more populist line while Democrats stick with a corporate agenda. And considering the profile of those who stood up against SOPA, that could move a key constituency of young voters into the Republican column.

Alas, I would link to the full paper, but within 24 hours of posting it, the Republican Study Committee took it down claiming that it wasn’t properly “vetted.” This email comes from the executive director of the RSC, Paul Teller:

From: Teller, Paul
Sent: Saturday, November 17, 2012 04:11 PM
Subject: RSC Copyright PB

We at the RSC take pride in providing informative analysis of major policy issues and pending legislation that accounts for the range of perspectives held by RSC Members and within the conservative community. Yesterday you received a Policy Brief on copyright law that was published without adequate review within the RSC and failed to meet that standard. Copyright reform would have far-reaching impacts, so it is incredibly important that it be approached with all facts and viewpoints in hand. As the RSC’s Executive Director, I apologize and take full responsibility for this oversight.

Tech Dirt did manage to save a copy of the initial report. But clearly, entertainment industry lobbyists went ballistic on the RSC and forced them to recant the paper.

This dynamic, where Republicans attempt to moderate their views (or in this case, get completely to the left of Democrats on an issue important to young people) and then get pulled back by their base or their corporate contributors, explains a lot about their party’s performance the past several years, in not just the political but the policy arena. This idea that a crushing defeat will somehow cause a sea change within the party just doesn’t meet with reality.

Image by opensourceway under Creative Commons license.

David Dayen

David Dayen