Back in November of last year, Republican staffer Derek Khanna faced a dilemma that, unlike the problems faced by many of his peers in the GOP, had nothing to do with the election. Specifically, Khanna had authored a memo on copyright reform for his then-employers, the Republican Study Committee (RSC) that shot down three “myths of copyright” – that is, that “the purpose of copyright is to compensate the creator of the content,” that “copyright is the free market at work,” and that “the current copyright legal regime leads to the greatest innovation and productivity.” Khanna’s memo was meant to get the ball rolling on a discussion of copyright policy within the GOP, with the goal of allowing some form of modest legislation to be crafted on that topic. What is more, the memo had been approved through the usual channels, and had been posted a few weeks back, to adulation from both conservatives and liberals. You can read the memo below:
The problem? The entertainment industry hated it, and many Republicans, who worked closely with that very industry, had pushed back on the memo. As such, Khanna found his celebrated memo pulled from the RSC site abruptly, with claims that it hadn’t been properly reviewed being issued as excuses. Within two weeks, he was fired.
But Khanna didn’t take his firing lying down. Since last November, he has taken his cause in a dramatically different direction, becoming a major activist in fights over intellectual property, most notably a recent petition attacking the decision by the Library of Congress to outlaw unlocking cell phones. As TheBlaze’s Liz Klimas described this fight:
The tech community spoke out strongly against the Library of Congress when it decided last year to stop allowing cellphones to be unlocked. More than 100,000 signatures (114,322 to be exact) on a petition to the White House later, the administration has responded, siding with those who support unlocking of cellphones.
Why should you care? Sina Khanifar, an entrepreneur who helped start OpenSignal, a database of wireless network information, and launched the initial petition to “make unlocking cellphones legal,” told TheBlaze in an email the general public should pay attention and care about the legislation that could follow the White House’s response.
“Unlocking phones means great competition between wireless carriers, a more open market and more freedom for consumers to choose the best carrier in their area,” Khanifar wrote.
Phones sold by specific providers include an SIM lock that prevents the phone from being used in other countries or with different providers. Prior to the Library of Congress’ ruling in the fall of 2012 going into effect this year, phones were exempt from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which meant they could be unlocked.[…]
Locking cell phones also prevents consumers from freely choosing their cell carrier. If you decide to change your network, say from AT&T to T-Mobile, the DMCA regulations mean that unless your carrier agrees to unlock your phone, you’ll need to buy a new device. As a result, manufacturers like Motorola and Apple are keen to keep devices locked so that they can sell more phones. The CTIA, the trade association that represents the wireless industry, claims that the illegality of phone unlocking prevents “large scale phone trafficking operations” that involve unlocking carrier-subsidized phones and selling them abroad. But consumers who buy subsidized phones commit to two-year contracts with hefty early-termination fees (up to $350 for most carriers). The carrier’s subsidies are already contractually protected.
The petition garnered a favorable response from the White House, but also prompted arch-conservative Republicans to leap into action, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz being one major example. It is not difficult to see why. Many advocates of stringent copyright protection also happen to be some of the most forceful advocates of internet censorship, especially of the kind supported in the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that failed in Congress last year. Libertarian leaning conservatives such as Glenn Beck slammed that piece of legislation at the time:
Since his firing, Khanna has become the face of copyright reform, a position which has landed him celebrity status within the tech community, and with pro-tech bloggers both on the Left and the Right. Both the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein and the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney, not ordinarily two writers found on the same side of an issue, have praised Khanna’s courage while slamming Hollywood and, by extension, the content industry. From Klein:
Khanna had unwittingly stumbled into a deep fissure in today’s Republican Party. The party sees itself as the champion of private enterprise. But which private enterprises? The ones that exist today? Or the ones that might exist tomorrow?
There’s a difference between being the party of free markets and the party of existing businesses. Excessively tough copyright law is good for big businesses with large legal departments but bad for new businesses that can’t afford a lawyer. And while Khanna, like many young conservative thinkers, believes in free markets, the Republican Party is heavily funded by big businesses.
And from Carney:
This paper upset some powerful interests. By Saturday afternoon, the RSC had pulled the memo from its website and officially retracted it. The reason, according to two Republicans within the RSC: angry objections from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, whose district abuts Nashville, Tenn. In winning a fifth term earlier in the month, Blackburn received more money from the music industry than any other Republican congressional candidate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Blackburn’s office did not return calls seeking comment.
Lobbyists for the music and movie industries also called the RSC to express disapproval, according to Republicans involved.[…]
Republicans are surprisingly close to the entertainment industry. For instance, Mitch Glazier, as a Republican House Judiciary Committee staffer in the late 1990s, played a key role in drafting GOP bills expanding copyright before cashing out to the industry. He now runs the Recording Industry Association of America, a $4 million-a-year lobby operation that fights for more government protection of record labels.
So Republican politicians, with their sensitivities to K Street and their general pro-big-business tendencies, are not eager to roll back the extraordinary government protection for Hollywood and Nashville. But free-market think tanks and writers are banging the drum.
And as for Khanna himself? He is just getting started. TechCrunch sums up Khanna’s future prospects:
Khanna isn’t done yet; his next act partners with well-known tech policy advocates, such as consumer watchdog, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to initiate sweeping copyright reforms. The coalition launched a new movement to effectively end much of the discretionary authority given to government agencies, like the Library of Congress, through a law that stands as a pillar of modern-day digital copyright, Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
The Library of Congress has already rejected the White House’s pronouncement, and it will surely be joined by powerful content lobbies. Khanna and co are up against deep-pocketed, highly connected groups and their campaign is no longer flying under the radar.
The fight will test the mettle of grassroots activism. Regardless of the outcome, this digital David never would have had a chance against lobbyist Goliath were it not for a coalition of geeky officials and online tools that turned a fired staffer into a powerful voice.
For conservatives, many of whom have slammed the entertainment industry for its decadence, wastefulness and corruption, this move by a young activist who is unapologetically on the Right to take on that very industry while earning plaudits from Silicon Valley is likely to sound welcome. As to whether Khanna’s war with the entertainment industry will work out? That remains to be seen.