WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Don't hold your breath waiting for an overhaul of U.S. copyright law to reflect the massive changes the Internet has ignited in the way consumers access music.
In a keynote speech delivered Monday at the Future of Music Summit, U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R, Va.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee and co-chair of the Congressional Internet Caucus, said Congress won't "wipe the slate clean" to address how digital culture has made it easier than ever to distribute, copy, share and reconfigure music, movies, books and other creative works.
Both he and Maria Pallante, the register of copyrights and director of the U.S. Copyright Office, emphasized that the government is not eager to prosecute consumers for infringing activity in the privacy of their homes unless it's particularly egregious. Instead, they focused on a balanced, steady approach to monitoring illegal file-sharing and cracking down on rogue Web sites, most with offshore locations, that profit from contraband digital files.
"We have to keep pace with technology" in federal law, Pallante said, while still providing "a legal base for ... (artists) to make a living."
Easier said than done, perhaps. The stance surely struck many at this progressive-minded conference of artists, tech heads and entrepreneurs as frustratingly slow-moving for a culture that is changing with lightning speed in the last decade -- with even greater changes to come. But it also was somewhat reassuring in that the government is taking an even-keeled approach to solving what is essentially a private-sector problem.
Pallante and Goodlatte were in basic agreement on going after citizens who are infringing on artists' rights by sharing copyrighted digital files. Neither indicated the government is contemplating a more active role in cracking down on infringing activity the way the governments of several countries, including France, have in recent years.
Instead, Pallante said Congress is doing "a phenomenal job" of trying to find a "sweet spot between a flourishing Internet and stopping activity" that hurts artists.
Goodlatte said blatant copyright offenders will be prosecuted, but also advocated an increasing emphasis on educating the public about the consequences of illegal fire-sharing and using technology to enhance the value of copyrighted works. His response resonated most forcefully with the audience when he put the onus on private business to "understand what the consumer is looking for and change their business model to adapt." While underlining the fundamental protections provided by the Constitution, he challenged businesses that depend on intellectual property for their solvency to create legal platforms that are every bit as convenient and top-quality as rogue sites to attract consumers.
If nothing else, Goodlatte sounded more enlightened than the Recording Industry Association of America did in the last decade, when it sued its customers by the thousands in an attempt to stamp out file-sharing.
In addition, Pallante offered a quick overview of recent copyright activity, and noted that:
* The next frontier on the legal front is to provide safeguards for copyrighted songs that are streamed (as opposed to downloaded), as streaming is rapidly usurping downloading as the future of recorded music.
* A law, implemented in the '70s and now coming to fruition, that allows artists to terminate their copyright agreements with major labels and other publishing companies after 35 years is an exciting development for artists. Though labels are grumbling about losing a revenue stream if artists pull back their catalogues, Pallante said the provision provides an opportunity for songwriters to "exploit their rights" in "so many new ways" that couldn't have been imagined three decades ago.