Event Review: Bill Patry Talks Metaphors, Moral Panics and Folk Devils

Stuart Freen is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Last Wednesday the Centre for Innovation Law & Policy and IP Osgoode jointly welcomed William Patry to speak at University of Toronto’s Flavelle House. A prolific copyright scholar, former US government policy advisor and current Senior Copyright Counsel to Google, Patry spoke for about an hour and a half to a packed moot court full of students, faculty, and practitioners. The lecture touched on topics ranging from Jack Valenti to DVD region coding to comic books, but mostly stayed in the spirit of his new book “Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars”. His lecture was followed by a short but lively Q&A where he fielded a few curve-balls from the audience.

After a brief introduction by Ariel Katz, Patry began his lecture by (somewhat surprisingly) talking about Canada. Refreshingly, Patry displayed a healthy knowledge of the Canadian parliamentary system and our own ongoing copyright war and efforts to get a new bill passed. He seemed particularly impressed with the consultation process and the abilities of pro-consumer groups like CIPPIC to influence policy. He noted that unlike in the US, MPs in Canada are accountable to their constituents and are relatively accessible (a few inadvertent snickers were heard in the audience at this point).

Patry continued by talking about what he views as the biggest problem in the US copyright debate: the charged and adversarial rhetoric and metaphors adopted by content industries. He argued, as he does in his book, that content industries have framed what should be a reasoned debate focused on economics as a war on piracy and immorality. He showed a video of then-president of the MPAA Jack Valenti giving a talk at Duke University in 2003. In the video Valenti is shown really hamming it up for the crowd, talking about Faulkner’s old verities and how copyright infringement will undermine the moral fabric of America. As Patry shut down the video one got the sense that this was the type of language which he thinks is undermining rational discourse on copyright. By presenting copyright as a moral issue and demonizing copyright infringers, content industries have avoided treating copyright as the economic incentive for innovation it was really intended as.

Unfortunately, Patry ran out of time after about 45 minutes just when it seemed like he was really getting into the swing of his lecture. In the Q&A period that followed he took a moment to respond to the recent Globe and Mail book review by Toronto lawyer Grace Westcott (who was in attendance). In her review Westcott charges Patry with falling prey to some of his own criticisms by using emotionally loaded metaphors and language to demonize the pro-copyright contingent. Other reviews have said essentially the same thing in much less polite terms. Patry’s response was that he would have criticized the copyleft movement on similar grounds but, at least in the US, no one cares what they think. The danger with the content industries is that they actually have significant lobbying power especially in the US.

At one point David Basskin from the CMRRA commented that there is a deafening roar coming from the left saying that we should get everything for free. Patry responded by saying that the characterizations at the fringes are wrong; there was never a pre-Napster golden age where record companies satisfied consumers’ every needs, and it is also not true that people just want to get things for free.

Overall Patry came across as very reasonable and not at all a left-wing anti-copyright nut as some of his detractors would perhaps characterize him. While Patry is unapologetically critical of the content industries he is very much pro-copyright in the sense that he wants there to be an effective intellectual property right in place to encourage innovation. He argues that exact formulation of this right should be determined on economic grounds, not through lobbying and rhetoric. By clinging on to outdated business models and vilifying their customers, content industries are really doing more to hurt the copyright model than protect it.