Silence of the Lambs: The Missing Voice of Authors in the SOPA Debate

The recent media frenzy surrounding the Stop Online Piracy Act is perhaps most notable for the voice that is absent in the mainstream media debate: The voice of the individual creator of intellectual property. Instead, the battle lines have been drawn between competing corporate interests — that of the entertainment industry companies and trade organizations versus that of the Internet service providers. Overriding all is the crusade mounted by the self-proclaimed protectors of the “public” interest, who equate “free speech” with “free access,” based on the misguided notion that the public has an ownership in original works of authorship that surpasses the rights of the creator him- or herself.

The position of the anti-SOPA activists is antithetical to the principle of protection — for authors, that is — mandated in the Constitution of the United States. Our nation’s founders recognized that furthering the rights of creators is in the national interest, to “promote the progress of science and useful arts” by “securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Over the centuries, copyright protection has been codified in an expanding body of federal law in an attempt to implement the protection outlined in the Constitution.

The SOPA debate is emblematic of the growing tension between the copyright creator — the authors, composers, lyricists and artists who have contributed so much to the socio-economic fabric of American life — and the “interests” of the public in having free access to the works of others. However, the creator/public dichotomy is a false paradigm. What is truly at stake are the competing interests of the creators and the corporations who have acquired and are exploiting their works.

It is the rare creator who has the luxury to create simply for the sake of creating. As history has shown (every Renaissance artist worth his canvas had a patron), in order for creators to enjoy the benefits of their creations, it is necessary for them to cross over into the world of commerce, and to seek the patronage of publishers, record labels, and film and television producers. Sadly, the relationship between creator and corporate sponsor is seldom equal, as evidenced by the scores of documents executed by authors, songwriters and other creators, granting the rights in their works to corporate entities in perpetuity, often in exchange for modest compensation.

Congress attempted to include in the Copyright Act a series of provisions to give the creator (or the heirs of a deceased creator) the opportunity to terminate even perpetual grants of copyright, and “recapture” rights to their works in the U.S. These provisions, known as the “termination provisions,” were first introduced as part of the Copyright Act of 1976, and later modified as part of the Sonny Bono Copyright Act of 1998.

The intent of Congress in enacting the termination provisions was clear: To give creators, or their heirs, the opportunity to escape inequitable deals, or simply to revise the terms of their deals in order to share proportionately in the success of their creations. And, indeed, the opportunity to recapture rights is a potentially valuable asset for creators and their statutory successors. Yet, outside the music industry, the termination right is significantly underutilized, while even songwriters and recording artists are often thwarted in their attempts to recapture rights in a process made unduly complicated in response to pressure from corporate lobbyists.

Like the termination provisions, the real value of SOPA and other copyright enforcement legislation is its role in safeguarding the interests of the intended beneficiaries of copyright protection. Whether or not SOPA is the most effective means of curbing piracy in the online arena is a matter that should be thoroughly examined. However, the SOPA debate should not be commandeered as a vehicle for furthering the position of those who seek to write authors out of the copyright law and the Constitution.

Lisa A. Alter is a partner in the firm of Alter & Kendrick, LLP, in New York City. Her practice is focused primarily in the area of copyright law, with a particular emphasis on domestic and international music copyright issues. Ms. Alter has lectured frequently at law schools and professional meetings on copyright matters, and has represented clients on legislative matters impacting their copyright interests. She is the author of “Protecting Your Musical Copyrights,” which has recently been released in its second edition.

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