A decade ago, the copyright debate seemed pretty straightforward. On the left were skeptics like Larry Lessig, who saw long copyright terms and strong copyright enforcement as a form of corporate welfare. On the right, most people saw efforts to weaken copyright protections as just another attack on private property.
But two new publications suggest that that dynamic is changing, with conservative and libertarian thinkers increasingly skeptical about strong copyrights. The R Street Institute has published a new paper by Derek Khanna making the case against ever-increasing copyright terms. And the libertarian Mercatus Center at George Mason University has published a book by Tom Bell, a Chapman University legal scholar who casts copyright not as a kind of property right but instead as a dubious form of “intellectual privilege.”
These are not new positions for Bell and Khanna. Bell has taken a skeptical stance toward copyright since he directed the Cato Institute’s tech policy program 16 years ago. And Khanna’s R Street paper largely reiterates positions he took in a 2012 memo that got him fired from his job at the Republican Study Committee, a think tank for conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives. And, to be clear, I’m not an impartial observer to this debate, having written about copyright issues for both Cato and Mercatus.
But what’s changing is that the views of skeptics like Bell and Khanna are becoming more prominent thanks to a growing interest in the subject from right-leaning think tanks. Copyright didn’t used to be a major focus for Mercatus, but the think tank has now published two books on copyright skepticism in less than two years. Bell’s book was highlighted at a Cato Institute event this week. And the R Street Institute is a new organization founded in 2012 in part to promote patent and copyright reforms.