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If there was any question that copyright law in the digital age is reaching a critical point, a coalition of Web sites on January 18 offered a stark reminder.

In the largest online protest in Internet history, some 7,000 popular sites went dark or otherwise altered their sites, successfully protesting two controversial copyright proposals introduced in Congress—the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) the PROTECT IP Act, also known as PIPA.

The bills are now shelved, but the effort to revise copyright law will continue. The question is, how do we move forward? PW caught up with William Patry, the famed copyright scholar (and senior copyright counsel at Google) and author of the new book How to Fix Copyright (Oxford Univ. Press), to talk about the role of copyright.

How does this book, How to Fix Copyright, relate to your last book, Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars?

Some of the reaction to Moral Panics was that all I was doing was criticizing and not offering ideas to make things better. So it occurred to me that if I was going to tell content owners that they have to listen to their consumers, as I was, and my consumers were telling me they wanted a more prescriptive book, then maybe I should do it.

How to Fix Copyright came about as a “how-to” approach. Moral Panics, on the other hand, was an attempt to understand the language of the copyright debates. As you know, I worked for the Copyright Office, for the House of Representatives, and I’d been put on a lot of hearings, and there were a lot of witnesses at those hearings, some of them good, some of them terrible, and some of them very colorful. One of those witnesses was [former MPAA chairman] Jack Valenti. He was the most colorful of them all. I liked Jack a lot. I thought he was a man of great integrity.

It’s fascinating to me that you were so fond of Jack Valenti, who was a master of the kind of language you call out in Moral Panics. Did Valenti really believe all those colorful arguments he made?

That’s the question, whether he was a great actor for Hollywood, or whether he drank the Kool-Aid, too. Presumably, you go to work for companies that align with your beliefs, so I think Jack probably did believe many of the things he said. But I know he didn’t believe all of them. He was an incredibly honorable guy, and he worked hard, and he was really, really good at what he did. And when someone is really, really good at something, and they do it at the very highest levels, nothing is accidental. So when Jack said, “The VCR is to the American film industry what the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone,” he wasn’t just being colorful. It was deliberate.

That remark comes with context, of course—Charlie Ferris, who represented the Consumer Electronic Association, had said the VCR was a friend to the American film industry, and Jack’s comment was in response to that. But Jack’s comment was made in such a way that we remember it to this day, while no one remembers Charlie Ferris’s remark.

How to Fix Copyright is certainly a timely book, as there seems to be a lot of discussion about reforming copyright, proposals like ACTA, and SOPA and PIPA.

Actually, none of those are attempts to reform copyright. Reform, at least as I would use the word, is an effort to take a look at things and figure out how they can be improved in a systemic way. I think what some countries are attempting to do is to update copyright law, to make some changes in some areas. But I don’t think anyone is actually saying we need to go back and figure things out fresh.

Is copyright really in need of, as you say, an “update?”

No, I think it is in need of reform.

Why does copyright need to be reformed?

If we’re moving toward access and away from ownership—and I think that’s a good thing for a lot of stuff, as much as I like ownership—a law that was based on the London book trade in the late 1600s needs more than updating. It needs a complete rethinking. Whether it’s music, movies, books, or whatever, copyright needs to be rethought in ways that fit how people today consume and create. Saying that isn’t meant to prejudice any outcome. It’s merely to say what should be noncontroversial: that our laws should fit the way we live. And right now, with copyright laws, they don’t. And it’s getting more and more out of kilter as technology accelerates.

Now, saying we need copyright reform isn’t a way of concealing a disguised preference for digital, either. It’s just reality. In truth, I’m very old-fashioned. I like hard-copy books. I like print newspapers, CDs, DVDs, sheet music. I’m actually the ideal consumer for the traditional content industries. I buy every hard copy thing there is. I had a Kindle subscription to the Wall Street Journal, which I canceled, because I hated it, even though it was a lot cheaper. I have a 10 year-old daughter who is an incredible reader. She may read 1,000 pages a week, and we go to an independent bookstore in Greenwich, Conn., Diane’s Books, even though the prices are higher, because they know my daughter and they know books. I’m very willing to pay a premium to go there and have them know my daughter by name, know her tastes, and give her a book she’ll like. That’s a value added, and it’s a good experience. That said, for whatever reason, at night my daughter prefers the Kindle. Even at 10 years old, I think she is transitional, because she’s somebody who likes both hard copies and e-books, and I imagine that in a few years you’ll have kids whose dominant experience will be with e-books.

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