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William Patry’s MORAL PANICS AND THE COPYRIGHT WARS: Elegant, calm, reasonable history of the copyfight


Moral Panics and the Copyright WarsFew people are as qualified to write a book about the copyright wars as William Patry: former copyright counsel to the US House of Reps, advisor the Register of Copyrights, Senior Copyright Counsel for Google, and author of the seven-volume Patry on Copyright, widely held to be the single most authoritative work on US copyright ever written.

And Patry has written a very fine book indeed: Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars is every bit as authoritative as Patry on Copyright (although much, much shorter) and is absolutely accessible to a lay audience.


There are many legal scholars who’ve written about the copyright wars, from Pam Samuelson to Larry Lessig to Jonathan Zittrain to James Boyle, and in this exalted company, Patry’s Moral Panics stands out for the sheer, unadorned calm of his approach. Patry doesn’t have a lot of rhetorical flourish or prose fireworks. Instead, he tells the story of copyright in plain, thoughtful words, with much rigor and grace. Reading Moral Panics is like watching a master brick layer gracefully and effortlessly build a solid wall: no wasted motion, no sweat, no missteps. Patry knows this subject better than anyone and can really explain it.

As the title implies, Patry places the copyright wars amid other moral panics — think of witch-hunts (both the “Communist” and the old-fashioned “witch”) — and he devotes much of the book to the sociology of moral panic, the views of the Greeks on language and metaphor, and the weaponizing of language (and the especial use which the terms “theft” and “piracy” have in this regard) and the ways that historical figures like Jack Valenti used this rhetoric to shift the debate. Patry uses his immense knowledge of the law and history to show how publishers and entertainment companies have spent literally centuries arguing for “artist rights” when it comes to fighting technological innovation, but deriding those same rights in their dealings with actual artists.

Patry also shows how artists have stolen, borrowed and copied from one another for all of history, and how even the most “original” artists derive their works from those around and before them.

He shows how the debate has been skewed through the use of shoddy statistics (for example, the oft-touted $250 billion/750,000 jobs in annual US piracy losses, which turns out to be a decades-old, half-remembered, vastly inflated, and entirely unscientific extrapolation of a rough estimate of the losses due to fake tractor parts.

He reserves his greatest arguments for the US 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the attempts to expand its remarkable control into new realms — the newspapers who want the right to stop you from quoting even five words from their stories, the movie studios who want to disconnect you from the Internet because they believe — but can’t prove — that you’re infringing copyright. This is the part of the debate that usually has me frothing at the chops, but Patry remains admirably calm as he carries this off, explaining in terms that anyone can understand the terrible violence that this kind of monopoly control does to our discourse, the arts, and competition and innovation.

Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars

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