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Death of a Mentor

IMHO, Bill Patry is the dean of American copyright lawyers. His 5500-page treatise “Patry on Copyright” is my bible; I refer to it three or four times a week. Even better, his personal blog contained up-to-the-minute reporting and deep analysis of current copyright issues—internationally, in the courts, and in Congress. The blog was indispensable: I referred to it for a lot of my columns here, and if I knew that a client had an issue that had recently been dealt with almost anywhere, I could count on Patry’s blog to give me the skinny. And amazingly, the few times that I had comments or questions, I’d e-mail him and he’d get back to me within a day. (Like his gig as senior counsel for Google didn’t keep him busy enough.)

I’m referring to his blog in the past tense because he shut it down last week. He first took the whole thing offline, and then restored the archives after he heard from tons of people who, like me, considered his blog a primary research resource.

You’d think maybe he was too busy to keep it going, or that something happened in his life to make continuing the blog—that had almost-daily posts, some of which were several thousand words long—untenable.

Nope. He shut it down because the state of copyright law has become too depressing. Here’s part of what he posted:

I regard myself as a centrist. I believe very much that in proper doses copyright is essential for certain classes of works, especially commercial movies, commercial sound recordings, and commercial books, the core copyright industries. I accept that the level of proper doses will vary from person to person and that my recommended dose may be lower (or higher) than others. But in my view, and that of my cherished brother Sir Hugh Laddie, we are well past the healthy dose stage and into the serious illness stage. Much like the U.S. economy, things are getting worse, not better. Copyright law has abandoned its reason for being: to encourage learning and the creation of new works. Instead, its principal functions now are to preserve existing failed business models, to suppress new business models and technologies, and to obtain, if possible, enormous windfall profits from activity that not only causes no harm, but which is beneficial to copyright owners. Like Humpty-Dumpty, the copyright law we used to know can never be put back together again: multilateral and trade agreements have ensured that, and quite deliberately.

It is profoundly depressing, after 26 years full-time in a field I love, to be a constant voice of dissent. I have tried various ways to leaven this state of affairs with positive postings, much like television news shows that experiment with “happy features.” I have blogged about great articles others have written, or highlighted scholars who have not gotten the attention they deserve; I tried to find cases, even inconsequential ones, that I can fawn over. But after awhile, this wore thin, because the most important stories are too often ones that involve initiatives that are, in my opinion, seriously harmful to the public interest. I cannot continue to be so negative, so often. Being so negative, while deserved on the merits, gives a distorted perspective of my centrist views, and is emotionally a downer.

Wow is right. What he’s talking about is the hijacking of copyright law by Big Media, who perversely twist and augment the law with silly provisions designed not to encourage creativity, but to protect their multi-billion-dollar business from the simple fact that the Internet has rendered their modes of business unsupportable otherwise. Free copying doesn’t stop new music from being made, but it does put a hurtin’ on Edgar Bronfman, Jr.’s stock options.

He’s also talking about how these ridiculous laws, that not only stifle creativity and innovation, but threaten the public’s privacy, are rammed down our throats. The president (and I’m not complaining about just Bush; Clinton did it, too) sends a trade envoy who negotiates intellectual property treaties that obligate the U.S. to adopt these hideous provisions into our copyright law. Then the pfresident goes to Congress and leans on them to pass the new laws, so we can be in conformance with the treaty. And the members of Congress, who for the most part don’t understand the laws, don’t care, or are in Big Media’s pocket, happily comply.

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy’s one of Big Media’s great proponents. And he’s got a speaking part in the new Batman movie. Just sayin’.

I mourn the passing of Patry’s blog. It’s gonna be harder for me to appear smarter than I am without his guidance. But I’ll keep going here, because unlike Patry, I enjoy bitching about stuff.

—Paul Rapp


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