From Where I Sit

I’ve spent my career in Washington working at the intersection of the First Amendment, the internet and the creative rights of artists. When I got here, the digital age had just begun. I landed first at People for the American Way, working to keep regulators from stifling the internet’s power as a tool of democracy, and as a new, virtual public square where citizens could exchange information, ideas and art. I worked with content creators and internet entrepreneurs to strike down the first major declaration of war on internet freedom, the Communications Decency Act. That skirmish had an unintended consequence: it spawned an entire generation of defenders of free speech in the digital age.

As the internet evolved, we turned to new and far more complex issues, including balancing the competing rights of those who enter that public square – – the constitutional protections our nation affords artists, musicians and other creators — and the fundamental notion of free speech. Then as now, in the digital town hall of the internet, the challenge is to strike a balance between the two core notions of copyright protection and the First Amendment.

I would spend the next decade working at AOL, and later the combined (if ill-fated) company of AOL-Time Warner, helping to develop policy positions that would enable the internet to grow as a platform for communication, free expression, creativity and commerce. In addition to those lofty ideals the policies the internet industry, working with consumer advocates, stood for were also about the protection of personal privacy and the enforcement of laws barring illegal behavior.

Unfortunately, the ability to strike the right balance was elusive. While laws that protect intellectual property remain strong and enforcement efforts continue, technology has tipped the balance away from the interests of most creators and artists. The ease of distribution of copyrighted content has helped create a generation of people who believe that all content should be free. The notion that artists and creators, and even the big companies that finance, produce and deliver their creations, don’t have the right to own and control their distribution, simply cannot be.

Last July, I learned that after two years of negotiation the nation’s largest content companies signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) under which they planned to educate consumers about ways to enjoy content legally and avoid the pitfalls of illegal content distribution. I was intrigued. The stakeholders were coming together voluntarily without legislation or government intervention beyond what the law already provided. Built into the process was not only a progressive system to inform consumers of potentially illegal behavior, but also an educational platform that would help users understand their rights, secure their networks, and find ways to send and receive content safely and legally. I was intrigued because in setting up the CCI, the signatories to the MOU understood that consumers were entitled to a fair process that includes a way for users to challenge notices of alleged infringement, but also the importance of having an Advisory Board made up of consumer advocates.

I was intrigued because, despite their divergent interests, these parties were working hard to build a multi-stakeholder solution that would address the needs of consumers and content owners alike, while avoiding government intervention.

I now have an opportunity to turn that intrigue into action. I am looking forward to working with CCI’s Executive Board, and our newly appointed consumer Advisory Board, to implement the MOU in a way that helps educate consumers about digital copyrights, deters illegal distribution of copyrighted content and sets the stage for a new cooperative dialogue among all interested parties.

– Jill Lesser, Executive Director

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