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Intellectual Property and the Presidential Election

For topics that are subject to such extensive discussion among web surfers, academics, lawyers, media professionals, and technologists alike, issues like intellectual property enforcement and digital content piracy have been strangely absent from the political rhetoric during the 2012 convention season.

Take the policy platforms that have been published by the two parties, for example; the Republican platform makes almost no mention of intellectual property at all, while the Democratic platform deals with the subject in a fashion that is as vague as it is brief.

The GOP’s mention of intellectual property comes in the context of calling out China, without addressing the global phenomenon of online digital piracy.

This worldwide explosion of trade has had a downside, however, as some governments have used a variety of unfair means to limit American access to their markets while stealing our designs, patents, brands, know-how, and technology – the “intellectual property” that drives innovation. The chief offender is China, which has built up its economy in part by piggybacking onto Western technological advances…. Our serious trade disputes, especially China’s failure to enforce international standards for the protection of intellectual property and copyrights, as well as its manipulation of its currency, call for a firm response from a new Republican Administration.

Within the Democratic platform, intellectual property rights enforcement is mentioned as a priority for the Obama Administration, but the support for that claim is purely declaratory; the platform makes only the most veiled mention of initiatives supported by Administration to help stem the tide of digital piracy, leaving it to the reader to connect the dots between the platform’s rhetoric and controversial measures like “Operation In Our Sites.”

The administration is vigorously protecting U.S. intellectual property — our technology and creativity — at home and abroad through better enforcement and innovative approaches such as voluntary efforts by all parties to minimize infringement while supporting the free flow of information….. As technology advances, we will continue to work with all stakeholders to protect the security of the nation and its knowledge assets, U.S. intellectual property, the functioning of fair and competitive markets, and the privacy, free expression, and due process rights of Americans.

To be fair to both parties, the platforms that they publish for public consumption is probably not the place to outline a detailed plan for combating online piracy, reforming copyright law, or any other potentially thorny concept pertaining to intellectual property rights enforcement. Even outside of the platforms, however, both of the major parties and their candidates have been largely silent on the issue.

The most likely reason for their silence is that the parties fear the potential for stirring up controversy if they take too strong a stand, one way or the other, on the subject of copyright. On the one hand, many voters (and younger voters, in particular) reacted very strongly and negatively to proposed legislation like SOPA, and neither candidate wants that Internet ire aimed in the direction of his campaign. On the other hand, both parties receive substantial donations from individuals and industry groups whose copyrights are among those being infringed upon — all day, every day — on the Web.

My hunch is that neither candidate is going to have a whole lot more to say on this subject between now and the election, other than offering a vague commitment to the principle of “Internet freedom” paired with an even vaguer promise to protect “vital intellectual property rights.” This means that what either party will do (or not do), should their candidate come to occupy the White House as of late January 2013, is going to remain anybody’s guess — probably until some time well after all the votes have been counted.