This month the International Intellectual Property Alliance published its report on the contribution of copyright industries to the US economy. It demonstrated the major economic benefits to our society that are attributable to our traditional protection of intellectual property rights. At the issuance of this report, Congressman Doug Collins, House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet Vice Chair, stated, “Creativity undergirds the 21st century economy, and strong intellectual property rights ensure that our economy benefits from the innovation and pluck of American workers who bring many of our dreams to life…..Our nation’s founders, in their wisdom, placed intellectual property rights under the umbrella of our protected Constitutional rights. From the beginning, Congress has had the responsibility of upholding and strengthening those rights—which fuel American ingenuity….”
We know that not only are copyrights grounded in the constitution, but core copyright industries contribute approximately $1.2 trillion to the U.S. economy annually, and employ over 5.5 million American workers. At the same time, however, we are acutely aware that, unfortunately, copyright theft online is rampant, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has increasingly become ill equipped to address even flagrant, willful copyright infringement in the digital world.
What we don’t know, however, is how President-Elect Trump and the Trump Administration will view copyright issues, and whether pro-creator copyright reforms will be on the President’s agenda come January 20, 2017. We can, however, make some educated guesses based on Trump’s entertainment industry ties, his potential Supreme Court nominees, and those he is surrounding himself with on his Transition Team and in a Trump Administration that is increasingly taking shape.
Trump Entertainment Industry Ties
People have called Trump many things, but even his most vociferous critics must admit he is a media genius. As an entertainment personality, he first became known as an author, writing: Trump: The Art of the Deal, first published in 1987. Trump has written other books since, but he became most widely known for his starring role as the host of the reality TV series The Apprentice. Trump recently tweeted that he conceived of the idea of The Apprentice with producer Mark Burnett, and he will continue to receive Executive Producer credit on the show even after he is sworn in as President. Trump also owned the Miss Universe beauty pageant from 1996 until 2015. All in all, Trump has over 30 copyrights to his name, not including any owned by his companies.
Despite this background, we cannot be certain that the new Administration will side with copyright owners. To be sure, the President-elect has been for some time a larger than life media personality and talent within the industry, and thus might be inclined to support others in the creative industries Moreover, Trump has had on-again off-again rocky relationships with broadcast networks over the years (see here and here) and the Silicon Valley giants that find themselves at cross purposes with content creators in the digital era did nothing to endear themselves to Trump during the campaign. In fact, with the exception of Peter Thiel and to a lesser extent Mark Zuckerberg (who was largely defending Peter Thiel) the Silicon Valley elite snubbed, mocked and ridiculed Donald Trump and his supporters throughout the election cycle. With all that said, however, predicting the new Administration’s position on specific copyright issues is a fool’s errand at this time.
Potential Supreme Court Nominees
One of the first things President Trump will likely do is appoint a Supreme Court Justice to fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Trump has released a list of possible nominees for the Supreme Court. Only a few seem to have any copyright experience or familiarity in their professional past.
Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles Canady previously served in the House of Representatives from 1993 to 2000. While in Congress, Justice Canady served on the House Judiciary Committee and its Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet. He co-sponsored during his time in Congress two bills related to copyrights: (1) The Copyright Term Extension Act; and (2) The Intellectual Property Antitrust Protection Act.
Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) has had some involvement with copyright policy in the music industry as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights, but he did not tip his hand about whether he places more value on copyright as a property right or on a consumer’s ability to access the copyright. As an example, he summarized his opening statement in a hearing last congress with the non-committal statement, “As we listen today, we must remember that we have both a responsibility to encourage creativity by recognizing the value of copyrights and a duty to ensure that prices for music remain competitive for consumers.” In 2012, Senator Lee opposed the Protect IP Act, legislation supported by the copyright industries to provide the US government and copyright holders additional tools to curb access to rogue websites dedicated to the sale of infringing or counterfeit goods. In a statement Senator Lee released on January 18, 2012, explaining his opposition to the Protect IP Act, he explained he was sympathetic to the objectives of the Act, but thought the bill “would threaten Internet security, stifle the free flow of online information, and unduly burden third parties.”
Senator Lee’s brother, Utah Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee, previously specialized in intellectual property law while in private practice. Justice Lee also taught intellectual property law at Brigham Young University. However, Justice Lee seems to have primarily specialized in trademark law, not copyright matters. Only two articles relating to copyright law could be located that were authored by Justice Lee, both written while he was a Law Professor at BYU. They are: (1) Eldred V. Ashcroft and the (Hypothetical) Copyright Term Extension Act of 2020 (2003); and (2) “To Promote the Progress of Science”: The Copyright Clause and Congress’s Power to Extend Copyrights (2002) (co-authored with Senator Orrin Hatch R-UT). In the 2003 article, he argued that if the Supreme Court ruled in Eldred that a term of life plus seventy years was “limited” than they would be unlikely to rule differently in the case of life plus 100 years. A thirty year increase is still not a “perpetual copyright.” In the 2002 article, however, the authors argued in favor of the Copyright Term Extension Act (CETA). Specifically, they supported their argument using the scarcely referenced preambular purpose provision of the Copyright Clause, “promot[ing] the progress of science” and took issue with the then-existing scholarly literature that asserted “that copyright fulfills its constitutional purpose only if it increases the quantity or quality of the existing body of artistic works.” They argued that progress does not inherently equal “more” but rather the physical movement forward. “The Copyright Clause,” they wrote, “encompasses the broader notion of encouraging the dissemination and preservation of existing works. Since the CTEA can be understood to advance those objectives” it should be upheld as “constitutional.”
Trump, Trump Transition Officials and Trump Nominee Statements on IP
Perhaps the closest thing the President-elect has offered as an insight into how he will treat copyright as President came during an August 8th speech outlining his economic plan. He stated (with the following underlining added for emphasis):
“At the center of my plan is trade enforcement with China. This alone could return millions of jobs into our country. They break the rules in every way imaginable. China engages in illegal export subsidies, prohibited currency manipulation, and rampant theft of intellectual property. They also have no real environmental or labor protections, further undercutting American workers. Just enforcing intellectual property rules alone could save millions of American jobs. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, improved protection of America’s intellectual property in China would produce more than 2 million more jobs right here in the United States.”
One of the transition team members, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), House Energy and Commerce Committee Vice Chair recently stated, “Creativity unleashes endless possibilities as evidenced by the results of this study. The contributions made by the creative industry to the US economy are remarkable. It’s imperative that we continue pushing to protect intellectual property rights.”
Another of Trump’s transition team members, Congressman Tom Marino (R-PA), a member of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet, has been a long-time copyright supporter. He noted upon introducing the Copyright Office for the Digital Economy (CODE) Act, “Creativity is the essence that has made America the most prosperous nation in the world.” At an event for music publishers and songwriters, he said, “I know firsthand what it is like to work hard for a paycheck and stretch a buck into next week. I appreciate the painstaking hours you put into your craft. When I think of songwriters, I think of the extraordinary gifts songwriters create for society. Music provides the soundtrack to our lives… Call me crazy, but if you work for hours and hours on a hit that is played around the world, your paycheck ought to reflect that success and make a good living for you and your family… There are songwriters in each district in America… If each of these songwriters reaches out to their members of Congress, we can make a difference. Advocacy is of the utmost importance.”
The President-elect’s nominee for Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, wrote an op-ed in July 2016 saying WTO provides “little or no protection” against IP theft. Moreover, he stated that future trade deals should have “zero tolerance” for IP theft.
The creative works that are supported by America’s copyright laws – music, movies, TV, books, software, and video games – bind us together as a nation. Admittedly, there are far more questions than answers with respect to how the President-elect and his Administration will approach specific copyright law issues and potential copyright reforms, but there is reason to hope that they understand the critical importance of copyright to our economy, to good American jobs, and to our global competitiveness.