Drinking for intellectual property law change

Issue watchers gather in bars

NEW YORK - P-to-P (peer-to-peer) file-trading enthusiasts like to rant about the draconian steps taken by groups like the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) to enforce laws protecting their intellectual property rights, by shutting down distribution systems like the original Napster. But can those enthusiasts be organized into an influential grassroots organizing force?

The founders of CopyNight hope that the answer is "yes," and that social gatherings can ferment political activism. Last week, on the evening of opening arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court's hearing of MGM vs. Grokster, people interested in intellectual property (IP) issues and concerned about current legal trends assembled in bars in eight cities throughout the U.S. for the inaugural meeting of CopyNight. The new monthly event is intended to give participants a forum for discussing IP law -- and, CopyNight's founders hope, to mobilize a coalition to fight for changes in how the law deals with protection and distribution of creative works.

CopyNight's founder is David Alpert, a New York political organizer who also launched IPac, a political action committee focused on IP policy. While IPac works for change through the legislative system, CopyNight is aimed at broadening the pool of people who follow and care about the shaping of IP law.

For Alpert, fighting overly restrictive IP laws is essential to furthering technical innovation. "The opposition is out of control," he told the group of about 20 that assembled in a midtown bar for New York's debut CopyNight. "They want greater and greater control at the expense of peoples' ability to be creative."

Some who came to CopyNight could cite clear cases of legal obstacles hindering artistic or technical projects. Wendy Cohen is a co-producer of a film festival called Media That Matters. Sorting music rights is a constant problem for festival administrators, she said: "People have this inclination to include music they love -- and when they do, bang, copyright issues."

Others at the event admitted baser motivations for their interest in IP issues -- and even copped to being part of the shadowy mob of copyright-infringing downloaders P-to-P advocates try to downplay. "I like to download music for free," Sean Hart said cheerfully. But Hart also works as an actor, and appreciates the IP protections that ensure he gets paid when his recorded work is reused.

That's the crux of the problem people opposed to the RIAA's controlling approach will need to address, according to technology investor, activist and pundit Esther Dyson. An industry generalist best known as the founding chairman of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), Dyson stood out among the mostly twentysomething participants at CopyNight.

Members of groups like the RIAA "have cost structures based on old distribution channels," Dyson said. "Show them a new business model. If you don't like the law, you have to work to change it, rather than just grouse about it."

For now, CopyNight is more about social networking than direct action, according to organizer Alpert. Still, he kicked off the night by handing out flyers with bulleted discussion topics ("Hollywood located in California to escape the reach of Edison's patents. Might the U.S. lose the engine of future economic growth for the same reason?"), and is setting up forums on CopyNight's Web site to encourage participants to stay continuously involved.

CopyNight's organizers hope to take the effort national. In addition to New York, CopyNight gatherings were held simultaneously in Washington, D.C; Providence, Rhode Island; Raleigh, North Carolina; Austin, Texas; Los Angeles; San Francisco and Seattle. CopyNight San Francisco coordinator Ren Bucholz said the gathering there drew about a dozen people, from such varied fields as neuroscience research, medicine and software development.

"People who were there were having really good conversations about current IP issues and putting together a citizen lobbying day," Bucholz said. "We're setting up a community listserv to help plan the things we talked about and continue the conversations that we left at the bar."

The next CopyNight is scheduled for April 26 -- a day the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has declared "World Intellectual Property Day." In its advertisements for the campaign, WIPO offers a list of suggested activities such as "mount an essay competition in local schools on simple intellectual property-related themes" and "arrange for performers to deliver messages encouraging respect for creators and creativity."

In bars across the U.S., CopyNight attendees will be celebrating the day by brainstorming on how best to encourage creation and distribution of creative works while stripping away from them the legal protections of "property."

Supreme Court justices question P-to-P lawsuits, Mar. 29, 2005