A Political History of DRM and Related Copyright Debates, 1987-2012

Bill D. Herman
14 Yale J.L. & Tech. 162

Scholars who discuss copyright often observe that the voices for stronger copyright have more financial and political capital than their opponents and thus tend to win in Congress. While those facts are historically true, since the turn of the century, the politics around the issue have shifted substantially and become much messier and less predictable. This study illustrates this changing policy dynamic via a detailed political and legislative history of the major proposals regarding digital rights management and related areas of copyright, from 1987 to the present day. In 1987, there was no organized opposition to copyright’s expansion. Within fifteen years, however, there was a substantial coalition of opposition, including public intellectuals, allied journalists, and newly-founded nonprofits. By the mid- 2000s, this coalition had substantially slowed the expansion of copyright and even won substantial legislative support for proposals to limit copyright’s reach. Despite being badly outspent and having far fewer allies in Congress, the “strong fair use” coalition had fought the “strong copyright” coalition to a draw in two key debates in the mid-2000s. In early 2012, the strong copyright coalition tried to push through a pair of bills with far- reaching implications for the Internet ecosystem—and it looked like they would ultimately prevail, until Internet activism led millions of voters to contact Congress in opposition. By looking at the political histories of all of these proposals in one place, this article shows an unmistakable trajectory in the politics of copyright, from an era of relatively easy inter-industry negotiation toward an era in which copyright industries face a permanent, principled opposition, emboldened by having executed the largest online protest in history.