16 December 2004

There's an interesting, if somewhat shallow and misguided, article in today's Washington Post on prospects for changes in the Copyright Act that reflect a problem that allegedly happens only in administrative law: Agency capture. In this instance, the "agency" that has been captured is the Senate Judiciary Committee, which persists (and has since the late 1950s) in substituting its own judgment for the administrative agency that one would ordinarily expect to manage the technical details of the process: the Copyright Office.

In any event, the article is much more notable for how it defines the antagonists. It talks a great deal about the "entertainment industry" and what I like to refer to as the "content-reuse industry;" but it says nothing whatsoever about the protections afforded the actual creators of copyrightable works. I find this unsurprising; none of the various authors' organizations, for example, can claim to represent a substantial-enough segment of the herd of cats in question to legitimately claim that it is stating "authors' opinions." Some of those organizations remind me more of departmental politics in a mid-sized university than they do of advocacy organizations: They concentrate far more on one-upping each other than doing anything. And matters are far, far worse once one considers actual musicians, actual songwriters, and visual artists.

In the end, I think this is what is causing the agency capture: The parties whose actual interests are most at issue do not, and cannot—and probably should not—speak with enough unity on copyright issues to even get attention from the captured agency. That, of course, assumes that speech without campaign contributions and lobbyists attached, however substantively important, will get the kind of careful consideration that the matter requires. So we're stuck with a fight between absolutists with no consideration whatsoever of any alternate position, alternate mechanism, alternate interest, or alternate procedure. Bloody typical—I've been getting stuck (professionally) in these kinds of binary-logic fallacies masquerading as policy debates since the Carter administration. Which is one of the many hints of my unsuitability for politics…