The conniption around IP and copyright law

May 20, 2011
Image representing Eric Schmidt as depicted in...

FORTUNE -- A scathing report delivered to the British government this week urges that policy on intellectual property be applied "on the basis of evidence, rather than weight of lobbying." That, the report noted, would be a big change from the status quo.

It would seem that such a report could be helpful on this side of the pond as well. Some recent events in the world of copyright have raised worries that, in the quest to protect intellectual property rights, some other basic rights may be at risk. To wit:

-In California, the Recording Industry Association of America, never known for its calm circumspection when it comes to fighting piracy, is pushing for a state law that would allow warrantless police searches of businesses that duplicate CDs and DVDs. Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla is behind the measure, which the Los Angeles Times reports is "raising questions among U.S. constitutional law scholars as it quietly moves through the legislature." One such scholar told the Times that the bill represents a "huge exception" to the 4th Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches.

-Meanwhile, Google's (goog) executive chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt on Wednesday blasted a proposal to block access to Pirate Bay and other foreign sites that provide access to illegal downloads of music and movies. The proposed Protect IP Act (PIPA), introduced last week in the Senate, would set a "disastrous precedent," Schmidt said at a conference in London. Blocking access to foreign Web sites is an example of applying "simple solutions to complex problems," he said, comparing such proposals to China's severely restrictive Internet policies.

The Motion Picture Association of America, also never known for its calm circumspection when it comes to fighting piracy (except perhaps when compared to the RIAA), lashed out at Schmidt, called Schmidt's statement "pretty outrageous" in a blog post that seems to mischaracterize his words.

"Is Eric Schmidt really suggesting that if Congress passes a law and President Obama signs it, Google wouldn’t follow it?" asked the MPAA's Michael O'Leary.

Well, no, he isn't.  What he said was that Google would "fight" such a law, not that the company would disobey it.

On the other hand, who knows what Google's real stance on PIPA is? A spokesman for the company told CNET that Google is working "closely with Congress to make sure the Protect IP Act will target sites dedicated to piracy while protecting free expression and legitimate sites." It's not the first time Google has spoken out of both sides of its mouth on an issue, inadvertently or not. But on copyright, where billions of dollars are at stake based on the government's decisions, it might be wise for Schmidt and his team to get on the same page sooner rather than later.

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