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GOP “Rising Star” Derek Khanna Fired After Penning Controversial Copyright Reform Memo

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The Freedom to Connect conference has attracted people from across the political spectrum, including Derek Khanna, a “rising star” in the Republican Party, who has worked on both of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns. Khanna wrote a policy brief for the Republican Study Committee entitled “Three Myths About Copyright Law and Where to Start to Fix It.” In it, he advocated lighter penalties for copyright infringement and an expansion of fair use, arguing that current copyright law hinders progress and runs against constitutional principles. The day after it was released, the committee retracted the report, reportedly after pressure from the entertainment industry and politicians. Khanna then lost his job. He joins us to talk about why copyright reform transcends partisan politics. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting live from the Freedom to Connect conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. We’ll also be livestreaming this entire event throughout the day at our website, The Freedom to Connect conference is taking place at the AFI Silver, a well-known movie theater here in Silver Spring. It’s attracted people from across the political spectrum who believe in the freedom to connect online.

One of those people is Derek Khanna, described as a “rising star” in the Republican Party. He worked on both Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns and for Republican Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts. But he’s here at the Freedom to Connect conference talking about the memo that, well, cost him his job.

Back in November, Derek Khanna wrote a policy brief for the Republican Study Committee, a group organized by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, called “Three Myths About Copyright Law and Where to Start to Fix It.” In the brief, he described how today’s strict copyright system hampers progress and runs contrary to constitutional principles. He wrote, quote, “Today’s legal regime of copyright law is seen by many as a form of corporate welfare that hurts innovation and hurts the consumer. It is a system that picks winners and losers, and the losers are new industries that could generate new wealth and added value,” he wrote. He went on to advocate lighter penalties for copyright infringement and an expansion of fair use.

But media reports suggest the entertainment industry, and the politicians it supports, reacted strongly against the memo. By the next day, the Republican Study Committee had taken the report off its website and issued a retraction, saying it was “published without adequate review.” Then Khanna was told he would not be retained as a staffer under the committee’s new leadership.

Derek Khanna joins us now. He’s a visiting fellow with Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. He’s also been spearheading an online petition against a new ban on cellphone unlocking that’s received more than 114,000 signatures.

Derek, we welcome you to Democracy Now!

DEREK KHANNA: Thanks for having me on.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what it is that you put forward in this Republican Study Committee report that they have retracted and, well, fired you for.

DEREK KHANNA: Sure. Well, I think that intellectual property laws are one of the critical ways the government has to incentivize investment and research and development and progress. So I thought that analyzing our copyright scheme was a good way to go. And so, basically, I was taking a look at the current scheme that we have, comparing it to the Constitution, and saying, “Is this really the most effective structure of copyright law that we could have in this country?” And what I discovered was, this wasn’t consistent with the Constitution, and this was not really the best system. It was kind of a system that was mismatch and created by lobbyists over a series of years.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me read part of the memo on copyright reform that you authored, Derek Khanna, for the Republican Study Committee. You wrote, quote, “Strictly speaking, because of the constitutional basis of copyright and patent, legislative discussions on copyright/patent reform should be based upon what promotes the maximum 'progress of sciences and useful arts' instead of 'deserving' financial compensation.” What do you mean?

DEREK KHANNA: Well, we should have an analysis to figure out what the appropriate length of copyright term and patent term is and how broad those should be, because what you do is you’re creating a monopoly that ensures that there aren’t other market participants, there aren’t derivative works, for example. When Apple has a patent, for example, on a swipe-to-unlock feature, no one else could have a swipe-to-unlock feature on their phone. And so, we want patents, we want copyright, but there’s also a externality, a cost upon the market, in general. So you need to have that cost-benefit analysis. Too often, our conversations today are: You developed the intellectual property, so you should own it forever. But that’s not actually consistent with the idea of intellectual property or the Constitution.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from an email sent by a staffer for Tennessee Republican Congressmember Marsha Blackburn, one of the figures who reportedly exerted pressure against Derek Khanna’s memo. Mike Reynard, a spokesperson for Blackburn, wrote in an email to the Hill blog, quote, “She does not believe the radical positions espoused in a recent so-called policy paper regarding copyright. Conservatives aren’t going to tolerate the ideology that copyright violates nearly every tenant of laissez-faire capitalism, that copyright is a government monopoly, and that property rights don’t matter anymore.” Derek Khanna, [Reynard] went on to say that they were “happy to see [the committee’s leadership] denounce the process and the ideas in the paper after it was published.”

DEREK KHANNA: Well, I just have to strongly disagree with those statements. I mean, I was arguing going back to the Constitution, so I don’t know what’s so radical about that. And my main proposals were: Statutory damages today that can make you liable for a billion dollars for your iPod, I think that’s a little bit crazy. And that was the second proposal in there. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Just to clarify, it was the Blackburn staffer who said that; it wasn’t you.

DEREK KHANNA: Yes. I’m sorry, yeah.


DEREK KHANNA: So, Blackburn has said that. So I’m just a little bit confused by that statement. Is going back to the Constitution radical? Or is reducing our statutory penalties from a billion dollars from personal use radical? Or LimeWire, which was allegedly sued for $75 trillion for copyright violations—you know, is advocating for a lesser lawsuit than all the world—money that exists in the world, is that radical? I was a little bit confused by that statement.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is interesting, the political spectrum represented here. Darcy, talk about where you would disagree and where you would agree with Derek. I suppose on many other issues that, you know, Republicans represent in Congress, since you headed up the Progressive Democrat [].

DARCY BURNER: Well, I would imagine, on most things, we would do friendly disagreement. But I think on these issues he’s right, that the whole purpose of copyright is to provide some limited-term protection for intellectual property, to encourage people to create intellectual property, but then the public is to get the benefit of that intellectual property and the opportunity to build on it. And the way that it works right now in which copyright effectively never expires, because we can’t possibly let Mickey Mouse go into the public domain, is really problematic in terms of the right of the American people to build on what happens in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Who does Congressmember Blackburn represent? I mean, the people of Tennessee in her district, but also, talk about the entertainment industry and its position on this, and its position and its power in her campaign.

DEREK KHANNA: Well, I’m not going to disparage any member who is a part of our caucus. She represents Nashville, Tennessee. Obviously the MPA and the RAA were very engaged on this issue, and their perspective is that copyright should never expire. If that’s—you know, they should advocate for a constitutional amendment, because our Constitution is very explicit: Copyright has to be for a limited period of time. And that’s what I was advocating for.

AMY GOODMAN: MPA is the Motion Picture—

DEREK KHANNA: MPA is against that, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Film industry.

DEREK KHANNA: Yes, I should have specified that. And the RAA is for record artists.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where does this leave you right now, Derek Khanna? I mean, you’re a devoted Republican, but you’re sort of—been put out to pasture.

DEREK KHANNA: Well, I believe in conservative principles. I believe in constitutional fidelity and having a, you know, system that doesn’t over-criminalize personal conduct and put individuals liable for a billion dollars in damages. So these are conservative principles, to me. And we can agree on this, and we may disagree on what the appropriate length of copyright term is, but I think we agree on, somewhat, the broad parameters of how we should frame this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Have other conservatives spoken to you that they support what you’re having to say?

DEREK KHANNA: Numerous conservatives have come out in support of this. In fact, American Conservative Union put this up on their

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