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Take action! Tell US Congress not to pass the CLASSICS Act

by Georgia Young Contributions Published on Jun 26, 2018 05:00 PM

The 1990s have come back to haunt us as the US Congress attempts to extend the scope of copyright law again, just two decades after the last extension (which added twenty years to the terms of existing copyrights at the time), and this time their sights are set on the Internet.

Read on to learn more, including how to take action before Congress takes its next step with the bill, on Thursday, June 28.

Creative Commons founder and former Free Software Foundation (FSF) board member Lawrence Lessig recently explained the ugly consequences of the Compensating Legacy Artists for their Songs, Service, and Important Contributions to Society (CLASSICS) Act, which was passed by the US House earlier this year and is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of the omnibus Music Modernization Act. Lessig has a long history in the realm of copyright law -- he was the lead counsel on an unsuccessful challenge to the previous extension of US copyright law, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act.

The CLASSICS Act aims to fence in another arena in which users enjoy published works, Lessig writes, creating "a new digital performance right -- basically the right to control copies of recordings on any digital platform (ever hear of the Internet?) -- for musical recordings made before 1972" (hence the "cute" acronym, CLASSICS). The bill would grant such recordings a new "protection" through 2067, which actually means being copyright restricted for up to 144 years, compared to 95 years for print works from the same period.

Once again, this expansion of the scope of US copyright law flies in the face of the intention of the US Constitution, because its beneficiaries are not the public, nor artists, but corporate interests. Under the US Constitution, "copyright exists to benefit users...not for the sake of publishers or authors," and the Supreme Court has affirmed that intention -- the readers, music listeners, and audiences that experience copyrighted material are supposed to come first. In reality, US copyright law has acted as if the benefits to the public and to publishers are of equal importance, and as if its goal is to maximize the number of published works, thereby necessitating granting publishers maximum power. As a result, copyright law continues to grant publishers broader powers for increasing periods of time. (See "Misinterpreting Copyright" for an extensive examination of this problem.)

The consequences for music fans could be devastating, at a time when people increasingly use the Internet to listen to music, via digital music services and Web radio stations, according to reports from Nielsen and the Guardian. This bill will decrease access to recordings of music made between 1923 and 1972, because those who make such recordings available on the Internet will face serious legal consequences if they do so without a license.

The bill will inevitably further consolidate access to music recordings online, because those who cannot afford to pay licensing fees will risk fines if they defy the law. Big companies that already use Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) to stream music on the Web, from Sirius XM to Spotify, will have the advantage. As EFF reports, some already pay royalties for some of these recordings via private agreements with record labels -- smaller Web streamers are likely to be unable to manage the additional expense, or they could be shut out by exclusive licenses granted to bigger services.

Of greatest concern to the FSF is the effect this bill could have on free software for digital music, and the way it could allow DRM to grow on the Internet. Publishers often add DRM to their works under the guise of protection against copyright infringement, but in reality, DRM is a publisher's means of controlling every aspect of a piece of digital media -- and taking away user freedom. DRM is incompatible with free software, and its proliferation actively undermines widespread use of free software for digital media.

The CLASSICS Act was combined into an omnibus bill with the Musical Works Modernization Act and the Allocation for Music Producers (AMP) Act, and the Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the proposal on May 15, 2018 -- transcripts can be reviewed here (there is also video, but it requires nonfree JavaScript to view). The conversation largely omits a broader concern that ties together the effect of copyright overreach on arts and culture with its effect on free software: increased copyright restriction encourages lawsuits against people who share music. People become afraid to share digital media, believing sharing is theft.

Take action!

If you're not in the US, let us know your country by updating your profile so we can send you more relevant info. In the meantime, please also help us spread the word to your contacts in the US.

By Wednesday, June 27th, call a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee (especially if you live in their home state) and urge them to strike the CLASSICS copyright expansion from the Music Modernization Act.

Committee members include Republicans Chuck Grassley* (Chair, IA), Orrin Hatch* (UT), John Cornyn (TX), Ted Cruz (TX), Jeff Flake (AZ), Thom Tillis* (NC), Lindsey Graham (SC), Michael Lee (UT), Ben Sasse (NE), Mike Crapo* (ID), John Kennedy* (LA); and Democrats Dianne Feinstein* (Ranking Member, CA), Patrick Leahy* (VT), Sheldon Whitehouse* (RI), Christopher Coons* (DE), Mazie Hirono* (HI), Kamala Harris* (CA), Dick Durbin* (IL), Amy Klobuchar* (MN), Richard Blumenthal* (CT), and Cory Booker* (NJ). Those members with asterisks following their names were cosponsors of the CLASSICS Act before it was merged with the Music Modernization Act or are cosponsors of the Music Modernization Act -- yes, nearly all members of the Judiciary Committee cosponsored at least one of the bills.

Not sure what to say? Try using the following script:

*Hello, I live in CITY/STATE. I am calling to urge you to stop the overzealous expansion of copyright in the Music Modernization Act. The text in the CLASSICS Act portion of the bill would expand copyright for recordings made before 1972, creating a barrier for music listeners by expanding the use of Digital Restrictions Management, which is incompatible with the free software I use to listen to digital music. This is not what the US Constitution intended copyright to be. I hope SENATOR will do the right thing and strike the CLASSICS Act portion of the Music Modernization Act. Thank you for your time.*

But how do I call the Senators?

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