Archives For copyright policy

As Commissioner Wheeler moves forward with his revised set-top box proposal, and on the eve of tomorrow’s senate FCC oversight hearing, we would do well to reflect on some insightful testimony regarding another of the Commission’s rulemakings from ten years ago:

We are living in a digital gold age and consumers… are the beneficiaries. Consumers have numerous choices for buying digital content and for buying devices on which to play that content. They have never had so much flexibility and so much opportunity.  

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As the content industry has ramped up on-line delivery of content, it has been testing a variety of protection measures that provide both security for the industry and flexibility for consumers.

So to answer the question, can content protection and technological innovation coexist?  It is a resounding yes. Look at the robust market for on-line content distribution facilitated by the technologies and networks consumers love.

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[T]he Federal Communications Commission should not become the Federal Computer Commission or the Federal Copyright Commission, and the marketplace, not the Government, is the best arbiter of what technologies succeed or fail.

That’s not the self-interested testimony of a studio or cable executive — that was Gigi Sohn, current counsel to Chairman Wheeler, speaking on behalf of Public Knowledge in 2006 before the House Energy and Commerce Committee against the FCC’s “broadcast flag” rules. Those rules, supported by a broad spectrum of rightsholders, required consumer electronics devices to respect programming conditions preventing the unauthorized transmission over the internet of digital broadcast television content.

Ms. Sohn and Public Knowledge won that fight in court, convincing the DC Circuit that Congress hadn’t given the FCC authority to impose the rules in the first place, and she successfully urged Congress not to give the FCC the authority to reinstate them.

Yet today, she and the Chairman seem to have forgotten her crucial insights from ten years ago. If the marketplace for video content was sufficiently innovative and competitive then, how can it possibly not be so now, with audiences having orders of magnitude more choices, both online and off? And if the FCC lacked authority to adopt copyright-related rules then, how does the FCC suddenly have that authority now, in the absence of any intervening congressional action?

With Section 106 of the Copyright Act, Congress granted copyright holders the exclusive rights to engage in or license the reproduction, distribution, and public performance of their works. The courts are the “backstop,” not the FCC (as Chairman Wheeler would have it), and section 629 of the Communications Act doesn’t say otherwise. All section 629 does is direct the FCC to promote a competitive market for devices to access pay-TV services from pay-TV providers. As we noted last week, it very simply doesn’t allow the FCC to interfere with the license arrangements that fill those devices, and, short of explicit congressional direction, the Commission is simply not empowered to interfere with the framework set forth in the Copyright Act.

Chairman Wheeler’s latest proposal has improved on his initial plan by, for example, moving toward an applications-based approach and away from the mandatory disaggregation of content. But it would still arrogate to the FCC the authority to stand up a licensing body for the distribution of content over pay-TV applications; set rules on the terms such licenses must, may, and may not include; and even allow the FCC itself to create terms or the entire license. Such rules would necessarily implicate the extent to which rightsholders are able to control the distribution of their content.

The specifics of the regulations may be different from 2006, but the point is the same: What the FCC could not do in 2006, it cannot do today.

Imagine if you will… that a federal regulatory agency were to decide that the iPhone ecosystem was too constraining and too expensive; that consumers — who had otherwise voted for iPhones with their dollars — were being harmed by the fact that the platform was not “open” enough.

Such an agency might resolve (on the basis of a very generous reading of a statute), to force Apple to make its iOS software available to any hardware platform that wished to have it, in the process making all of the apps and user data accessible to the consumer via these new third parties, on terms set by the agency… for free.

Difficult as it may be to picture this ever happening, it is exactly the sort of Twilight Zone scenario that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is currently proposing with his new set-top box proposal.

Based on the limited information we have so far (a fact sheet and an op-ed), Chairman Wheeler’s new proposal does claw back some of the worst excesses of his initial draft (which we critiqued in our comments and reply comments to that proposal).

But it also appears to reinforce others — most notably the plan’s disregard for the right of content creators to control the distribution of their content. Wheeler continues to dismiss the complex business models, relationships, and licensing terms that have evolved over years of competition and innovation. Instead, he offers  a one-size-fits-all “solution” to a “problem” that market participants are already falling over themselves to provide.

Plus ça change…

To begin with, Chairman Wheeler’s new proposal is based on the same faulty premise: that consumers pay too much for set-top boxes, and that the FCC is somehow both prescient enough and Congressionally ordained to “fix” this problem. As we wrote in our initial comments, however,

[a]lthough the Commission asserts that set-top boxes are too expensive, the history of overall MVPD prices tells a remarkably different story. Since 1994, per-channel cable prices including set-top box fees have fallen by 2 percent, while overall consumer prices have increased by 54 percent. After adjusting for inflation, this represents an impressive overall price decrease.

And the fact is that no one buys set-top boxes in isolation; rather, the price consumers pay for cable service includes the ability to access that service. Whether the set-top box fee is broken out on subscribers’ bills or not, the total price consumers pay is unlikely to change as a result of the Commission’s intervention.

As we have previously noted, the MVPD set-top box market is an aftermarket; no one buys set-top boxes without first (or simultaneously) buying MVPD service. And as economist Ben Klein (among others) has shown, direct competition in the aftermarket need not be plentiful for the market to nevertheless be competitive:

Whether consumers are fully informed or uninformed, consumers will pay a competitive package price as long as sufficient competition exists among sellers in the [primary] market.

Engineering the set-top box aftermarket to bring more direct competition to bear may redistribute profits, but it’s unlikely to change what consumers pay.

Stripped of its questionable claims regarding consumer prices and placed in the proper context — in which consumers enjoy more ways to access more video content than ever before — Wheeler’s initial proposal ultimately rested on its promise to “pave the way for a competitive marketplace for alternate navigation devices, and… end the need for multiple remote controls.” Weak sauce, indeed.

He now adds a new promise: that “integrated search” will be seamlessly available for consumers across the new platforms. But just as universal remotes and channel-specific apps on platforms like Apple TV have already made his “multiple remotes” promise a hollow one, so, too, have competitive pressures already begun to deliver integrated search.

Meanwhile, such marginal benefits come with a host of substantial costs, as others have pointed out. Do we really need the FCC to grant itself more powers and create a substantial and coercive new regulatory regime to mandate what the market is already poised to provide?

From ignoring copyright to obliterating copyright

Chairman Wheeler’s first proposal engendered fervent criticism for the impossible position in which it placed MVPDs — of having to disregard, even outright violate, their contractual obligations to content creators.

Commendably, the new proposal acknowledges that contractual relationships between MVPDs and content providers should remain “intact.” Thus, the proposal purports to enable programmers and MVPDs to maintain “their channel position, advertising and contracts… in place.” MVPDs will retain “end-to-end” control of the display of content through their apps, and all contractually guaranteed content protection mechanisms will remain, because the “pay-TV’s software will manage the full suite of linear and on-demand programming licensed by the pay-TV provider.”

But, improved as it is, the new proposal continues to operate in an imagined world where the incredibly intricate and complex process by which content is created and distributed can be reduced to the simplest of terms, dictated by a regulator and applied uniformly across all content and all providers.

According to the fact sheet, the new proposal would “[p]rotect[] copyrights and… [h]onor[] the sanctity of contracts” through a “standard license”:

The proposed final rules require the development of a standard license governing the process for placing an app on a device or platform. A standard license will give device manufacturers the certainty required to bring innovative products to market… The license will not affect the underlying contracts between programmers and pay-TV providers. The FCC will serve as a backstop to ensure that nothing in the standard license will harm the marketplace for competitive devices.

But programming is distributed under a diverse range of contract terms. The only way a single, “standard license” could possibly honor these contracts is by forcing content providers to license all of their content under identical terms.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that the FCC has no authority whatever to do this, for such a scheme to work, the agency would necessarily have to strip content holders of their right to govern the terms on which their content is accessed. After all, if MVPDs are legally bound to redistribute content on fixed terms, they have no room to permit content creators to freely exercise their rights to specify terms like windowing, online distribution restrictions, geographic restrictions, and the like.

In other words, the proposal simply cannot deliver on its promise that “[t]he license will not affect the underlying contracts between programmers and pay-TV providers.”

But fear not: According to the Fact Sheet, “[p]rogrammers will have a seat at the table to ensure that content remains protected.” Such largesse! One would be forgiven for assuming that the programmers’ (single?) seat will surrounded by those of other participants — regulatory advocates, technology companies, and others — whose sole objective will be to minimize content companies’ ability to restrict the terms on which their content is accessed.

And we cannot ignore the ominous final portion of the Fact Sheet’s “Standard License” description: “The FCC will serve as a backstop to ensure that nothing in the standard license will harm the marketplace for competitive devices.” Such an arrogation of ultimate authority by the FCC doesn’t bode well for that programmer’s “seat at the table” amounting to much.

Unfortunately, we can only imagine the contours of the final proposal that will describe the many ways by which distribution licenses can “harm the marketplace for competitive devices.” But an educated guess would venture that there will be precious little room for content creators and MVPDs to replicate a large swath of the contract terms they currently employ. “Any content owner can have its content painted any color that it wants, so long as it is black.”

At least we can take solace in the fact that the FCC has no authority to do what Wheeler wants it to do

And, of course, this all presumes that the FCC will be able to plausibly muster the legal authority in the Communications Act to create what amounts to a de facto compulsory licensing scheme.

A single license imposed upon all MVPDs, along with the necessary restrictions this will place upon content creators, does just as much as an overt compulsory license to undermine content owners’ statutory property rights. For every license agreement that would be different than the standard agreement, the proposed standard license would amount to a compulsory imposition of terms that the rights holders and MVPDs would not otherwise have agreed to. And if this sounds tedious and confusing, just wait until the Commission starts designing its multistakeholder Standard Licensing Oversight Process (“SLOP”)….

Unfortunately for Chairman Wheeler (but fortunately for the rest of us), the FCC has neither the legal authority, nor the requisite expertise, to enact such a regime.

Last month, the Copyright Office was clear on this score in its letter to Congress commenting on the Chairman’s original proposal:  

[I]t is important to remember that only Congress, through the exercise of its power under the Copyright Clause, and not the FCC or any other agency, has the constitutional authority to create exceptions and limitations in copyright law. While Congress has enacted compulsory licensing schemes, they have done so in response to demonstrated market failures, and in a carefully circumscribed manner.

Assuming that Section 629 of the Communications Act — the provision that otherwise empowers the Commission to promote a competitive set-top box market — fails to empower the FCC to rewrite copyright law (which is assuredly the case), the Commission will be on shaky ground for the inevitable torrent of lawsuits that will follow the revised proposal.

In fact, this new proposal feels more like an emergency pivot by a panicked Chairman than an actual, well-grounded legal recommendation. While the new proposal improves upon the original, it retains at its core the same ill-informed, ill-advised and illegal assertion of authority that plagued its predecessor.

Over at the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP), Mark Schultz has an important blog posting on the Mercatus Center‘s recent launch of its new copyright piracy website,  The launch of this website has caused a bit of a tempest in a teapot with a positive report on it in the Washington Post and with a report in the Columbia Journalism Review pointing out problems in its data and errors in its claims.  (It is a bit ironic that a libertarian organization is having trouble with the launch of a website at the same time that there is similar reporting on troubles of the launch of another website on the opposite side of the political spectrum, Obamacare.)

Professor Schultz, who is a Senior Scholar at CPIP and a law professor at Southern Illinois University, makes many important points in his blog posting (too many to recount here).  One of his more important identifications is that the website reflects an unfortunate tendency among libertarian IP skeptics, who seem to fall victim to an error that they often identify in leftist critiques of the free market, at least on non-IP issues.  That is, some libertarian IP skeptics seem all to quick to deduce conclusions about actual, real-world business models from solely theoretical knowledge about what they think these business models should be in some “ideal” world.

Professor Schultz also identifies that, despite protestations to the contrary, Jerry Brito has explicitly framed his website as a “blame the victim” defense of copyright piracy — stating explicitly on Twitter that “Hollywood should blame itself for its piracy problems.” Consistent with such statements, of course, conventional wisdom has quickly gelled around the website that it is in fact a condemnation of the creative industries’ business models.  (Professor Schultz backs up this point with many references and links, including a screen grab of Jerry’s tweet.)

Professor Schultz ultimately concludes his important essay as follows:

perhaps the authors should simply dispense with the pretext. All too often, we see arguments such as this that say ‘I think copyright is important and abhor piracy, BUT . . . ‘ And, after the “but” comes outrage at most any attempt by creators to enforce their rights and protect their investment. Or, as in this case, advice that excuses piracy and counsels surrender to piracy as the only practical way forward. Perhaps it would be less hypocritical for such commentators to admit that they are members of the Copyleft. While I think that it’s a terribly misguided and unfortunate position, it is all too respectable in libertarian circles these days. See the debate in which I participated earlier this year in Cato Unbound.

In any event, however, how about a little more modesty and a little more respect for copyright owners? In truth, the “content” industry leaders I’ve met are, as I’ve told them, way smarter than the Internet says they are. They are certainly smarter about their business than any policy analysts or other Washingtonians I’ve met.

The movie industry knows these numbers very well and knows about the challenges imposed by its release windows. They know their business better than their critics. All sorts of internal, business, and practical constraints may keep them from fixing their problems overnight, but it’s not a lack of will or insight that’s doing it. If you love the free market, then perhaps it’s time to respect the people with the best information about their property and the greatest motivation to engage in mutually beneficial voluntary exchanges.

Or you can just contribute to the mountain of lame excuses for piracy that have piled up over the last decade.

This is a compelling call to arms  for some libertarians doing policy work in the creative industries to take more seriously in practice their theoretical commitments to private ordering and free enterprise.

As the blogging king (Instapundit) is wont to say: Read the whole thing.

[Cross posted at the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property blog.]

Today’s public policy debates frame copyright policy solely in terms of a “trade off” between the benefits of incentivizing new works and the social deadweight losses imposed by the access restrictions imposed by these (temporary) “monopolies.” I recently posted to SSRN a new research paper, called How Copyright Drives Innovation in Scholarly Publishing, explaining that this is a fundamental mistake that has distorted the policy debates about scholarly publishing.

This policy mistake is important because it has lead commentators and decision-makers to dismiss as irrelevant to copyright policy the investments by scholarly publishers of $100s of millions in creating innovative distribution mechanisms in our new digital world. These substantial sunk costs are in addition to the $100s of millions expended annually by publishers in creating, publishing and maintaining reliable, high-quality, standardized articles distributed each year in a wide-ranging variety of academic disciplines and fields of research. The articles now number in the millions themselves; in 2009, for instance, over 2,000 publishers issued almost 1.5 million articles just in the scientific, technical and medical fields, exclusive of the humanities and social sciences.

The mistaken incentive-to-invent conventional wisdom in copyright policy is further compounded by widespread misinformation today about the allegedly “zero cost” of digital publication. As a result, many people are simply unaware of the substantial investments in infrastructure, skilled labor and other resources required to create, publish and maintain scholarly articles on the Internet and in other digital platforms.

This is not merely a so-called “academic debate” about copyright policy and publishing.

The policy distortion caused by the narrow, reductionist incentive-to-create conventional wisdom, when combined with the misinformation about the economics of digital business models, has been spurring calls for “open access” mandates for scholarly research, such as at the National Institute of Health and in recently proposed legislation (FASTR Act) and in other proposed regulations. This policy distortion even influenced Justice Breyer’s opinion in the recent decision in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons (U.S. Supreme Court, March 19, 2013), as he blithely dismissed commercial incentivizes as being irrelevant to fundamental copyright policy. These legal initiatives and the Kirtsaeng decision are motivated in various ways by the incentive-to-create conventional wisdom, by the misunderstanding of the economics of scholarly publishing, and by anti-copyright rhetoric on both the left and right, all of which has become more pervasive in recent years.

But, as I explain in my paper, courts and commentators have long recognized that incentivizing authors to produce new works is not the sole justification for copyright—copyright also incentivizes intermediaries like scholarly publishers to invest in and create innovative legal and market mechanisms for publishing and distributing articles that report on scholarly research. These two policies—the incentive to create and the incentive to commercialize—are interrelated, as both are necessary in justifying how copyright law secures the dynamic innovation that makes possible the “progress of science.” In short, if the law does not secure the fruits of labors of publishers who create legal and market mechanisms for disseminating works, then authors’ labors will go unrewarded as well.

As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor famously observed in the 1984 decision in Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises: “In our haste to disseminate news, it should not be forgotten the Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression. By establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas.” Thus, in Harper & Row, the Supreme Court reached the uncontroversial conclusion that copyright secures the fruits of productive labors “where an author and publisher have invested extensive resources in creating an original work.” (emphases added)

This concern with commercial incentives in copyright law is not just theory; in fact, it is most salient in scholarly publishing because researchers are not motivated by the pecuniary benefits offered to authors in conventional publishing contexts. As a result of the policy distortion caused by the incentive-to-create conventional wisdom, some academics and scholars now view scholarly publishing by commercial firms who own the copyrights in the articles as “a form of censorship.” Yet, as courts have observed: “It is not surprising that [scholarly] authors favor liberal photocopying . . . . But the authors have not risked their capital to achieve dissemination. The publishers have.” As economics professor Mark McCabe observed (somewhat sardonically) in a research paper released last year for the National Academy of Sciences: he and his fellow academic “economists knew the value of their journals, but not their prices.”

The widespread ignorance among the public, academics and commentators about the economics of scholarly publishing in the Internet age is quite profound relative to the actual numbers.  Based on interviews with six different scholarly publishers—Reed Elsevier, Wiley, SAGE, the New England Journal of Medicine, the American Chemical Society, and the American Institute of Physics—my research paper details for the first time ever in a publication and at great length the necessary transaction costs incurred by any successful publishing enterprise in the Internet age.  To take but one small example from my research paper: Reed Elsevier began developing its online publishing platform in 1995, a scant two years after the advent of the World Wide Web, and its sunk costs in creating this first publishing platform and then digitally archiving its previously published content was over $75 million. Other scholarly publishers report similarly high costs in both absolute and relative terms.

Given the widespread misunderstandings of the economics of Internet-based business models, it bears noting that such high costs are not unique to scholarly publishers.  Microsoft reportedly spent $10 billion developing Windows Vista before it sold a single copy, of which it ultimately did not sell many at all. Google regularly invests $100s of millions, such as $890 million in the first quarter of 2011, in upgrading its data centers.  It is somewhat surprising that such things still have to be pointed out a scant decade after the bursting of the bubble, a bubble precipitated by exactly the same mistaken view that businesses have somehow been “liberated” from the economic realities of cost by the Internet.

Just as with the extensive infrastructure and staffing costs, the actual costs incurred by publishers in operating the peer review system for their scholarly journals are also widely misunderstood.  Individual publishers now receive hundreds of thousands—the large scholarly publisher, Reed Elsevier, receives more than one million—manuscripts per year. Reed Elsevier’s annual budget for operating its peer review system is over $100 million, which reflects the full scope of staffing, infrastructure, and other transaction costs inherent in operating a quality-control system that rejects 65% of the submitted manuscripts. Reed Elsevier’s budget for its peer review system is consistent with industry-wide studies that have reported that the peer review system costs approximately $2.9 billion annually in operation costs (translating into dollars the British £1.9 billion pounds reported in the study). For those articles accepted for publication, there are additional, extensive production costs, and then there are extensive post-publication costs in updating hypertext links of citations, cyber security of the websites, and related digital issues.

In sum, many people mistakenly believe that scholarly publishers are no longer necessary because the Internet has made moot all such intermediaries of traditional brick-and-mortar economies—a viewpoint reinforced by the equally mistaken incentive-to-create conventional wisdom in the copyright policy debates today. But intermediaries like scholarly publishers face the exact same incentive problems that is universally recognized for authors by the incentive-to-create conventional wisdom: no will make the necessary investments to create a work or to distribute if the fruits of their labors are not secured to them. This basic economic fact—dynamic development of innovative distribution mechanisms require substantial investment in both people and resources—is what makes commercialization an essential feature of both copyright policy and law (and of all intellectual property doctrines).

It is for this reason that copyright law has long promoted and secured the value that academics and scholars have come to depend on in their journal articles—reliable, high-quality, standardized, networked, and accessible research that meets the differing expectations of readers in a variety of fields of scholarly research. This is the value created by the scholarly publishers. Scholarly publishers thus serve an essential function in copyright law by making the investments in and creating the innovative distribution mechanisms that fulfill the constitutional goal of copyright to advance the “progress of science.”

DISCLOSURE: The paper summarized in this blog posting was supported separately by a Leonardo Da Vinci Fellowship and by the Association of American Publishers (AAP). The author thanks Mark Schultz for very helpful comments on earlier drafts, and the AAP for providing invaluable introductions to the five scholarly publishers who shared their publishing data with him.

NOTE: Some small copy-edits were made to this blog posting.