|National Academy of Sciences Appoints Itself… Copyright Authority?|
By Timothy H. Lee
Thursday, May 02 2013
When seeking expert opinion on matters of science, engineering or medicine, does one consult… musicians? No disrespect intended toward Thomas Dolby, who gifted the world with “She Blinded Me with Science,” but probably not.
In similar vein, when seeking expert opinion on music business models, the entertainment industry or copyright policy generally, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) isn’t your go-to source. This week, however, the NAS unleashed a massive 102-page review entitled “Copyright in the Digital Era.”
You’d presume that NAS would be particularly chastened against venturing into unfamiliar territory after its recent global warming policy debacle. In 2005, the NAS signed a statement citing the United Nations as authority that, “there is now strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring.” It further asserted, “most of the warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities,” and “[t]his warming has already led to changes in the Earth’s climate.”
Fast-forward eight years, when Reuters reported last month that, “Scientists are struggling to explain a slowdown in climate change that has exposed gaps in their understanding and defies a rise in global greenhouse gas emissions.” Or, in the words of The Economist, “Over the past 15 years, air temperatures at the Earth’s surface have been flat, while greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to soar.” And according to none other than scientists at Russia’s own Academy of Sciences, we are now on the brink of a global cooling period. According to the Voice of Russia, “in the near future, of course measured on geological timescales, we are at the threshold of an ice age.”
Regardless, one would expect greater modesty from the NAS, whose 1863 charter signed by Abraham Lincoln granted it the modest role of “advisers to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine.”
Such modesty is particularly appropriate at a time when President Obama claims that the federal budget sequester threatens doom to the scientific community. “Instead of racing ahead,” Obama said, “our scientists are left wondering if they’ll be able to start any new research projects at all, which means we could lose a year, two years, of scientific research.”
If that’s true, then why is the NAS steering its precious resources toward copyright policy considerations beyond its proper purview?
Heedless of such modesty, the NAS seeks to expand its activity to “identify both the costs and benefits of different types and levels of copyright and other forms of intellectual property.”
It gets even worse.
Not content with its own venture into intellectual property policy, the NAS advocates “more ambitious” involvement from an array of federal bureaucracies:
“The federal government can incrementally improve data collection from business and consumers by adding copyright-related questions to the regular surveys conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau and by encouraging donations, for example to the Bureau of Economic Affairs, of private sector business data. But the committee recommends consideration of a more ambitious approach. These agencies, together with the National Science Foundation, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and Copyright Office should study the advisability and feasibility of a regular systematic survey of businesses’ acquisition and use of intellectual property of all types – copyrights, patents, and trademarks.” (Emphasis added.)
From there, the NAS appoints itself rightful surveyor and authority for the music, film, publishing and software industries.
Taking the music industry example alone, we have witnessed the transition in one generation from vinyl records to cassette tapes to compact disks to iTunes and streaming audio. According to the NAS, however, “It could be the case that artists’ incomes and consumer welfare could rise under a better functioning music copyright system, particularly one more accommodating of innovation enabled by technological change.”
So the federal government can’t run an efficient post office, but it presumes to ascertain a more optimal innovation and technological model for one of the most dynamic industries in modern society?
In customary bureaucratic fashion, the 102-page report ultimately concludes by calling for more reports.
The better approach would be more modesty. Over the past three decades, our system of robust intellectual property rights has triggered the most innovative and prosperous period in human history. What we don’t need is more bureaucratic intrusion under a benevolent guise.
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