Obama’s ‘copyright czar’ showed independence

Vulnerable to criticism of pro-industry bias, she reached out directly to skeptical reporters

It’s hard for a czar to get attention these days. If you listen to the conservative political media, at one point there were at least 32 in the Obama administration. That count may be a teeny bit high, but there are enough random, high-ranking officials running around the executive branch that the most significant events of their tenure may be their coronations and their departures. When Victoria Espinel, the White House’s first-ever “copyright czar,” left her position last week after four years, she earned the greatest concentration of attention from reporters across tech, entertainment, and political beats since she started the job.

From the beginning of her tenure, reporters weren’t quite sure what to make of her role. Congress required its creation in a 2008 intellectual property bill, and neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations seemed thrilled about the order—President Bush opposed creating the position, and the Obama administration wasn’t quite sure under which administrative structure their new IP czar should live. When President Obama chose Espinel for the job, she was widely seen as a choice that industry groups like the Recording Industry Association of America, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Chamber of Commerce would approve of, although Wired reported at the time that the “copyleft” was “applauding the presidential appointment,” as well, citing praise from the digital rights group Public Knowledge. That was perhaps an optimistic way of describing Espinel’s reception on that side of the copyright divide: “It’s looking like—just as was initially feared—this position is really to get Hollywood’s own representative in the White House,” Techdirt’s Mike Masnick wrote.

One of the most widely covered stories of Espinel’s tenure was also about her work with movie and music industry groups. In 2010, Wired reported on emails obtained by Christopher Soghoian, an ACLU fellow focused on privacy, that showed how Espinel had been working with industry groups and Internet service providers to craft an agreement on the copyright alert system, which would punish Internet users for pirating. The emails, Wired wrote, “show the administration’s cozy relationship with Hollywood and the music industry’s lobbying arms and its early support for the copyright-violation crackdown system.” Publications like the Hollywood Reporter also followed Soghoian’s efforts to find out more about how the copyright alert system was created and how involved Espinel was.

The DC media was less interested in the copyright alert system—and less interested in Espinel. Politico covered some of her work on counterfeit drugs and dutifully noted when annual IP enforcement reports came out of her office. The Washington Post gave a nod to her work on protecting trade secrets—business, rather than entertainment, IP. She played a small but notable role in the coverage of the 2012 debate over laws proposed to police online content sharing—the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act—by co-authoring the administration’s response to an online petition asking the president to veto SOPA. It fit with her usual approach to these issues—try to walk the line between two sides sniping at each other. Any legislation, she wrote , along with two other administration officials “should reflect a wide range of stakeholders, including everyone from content creators to the engineers that build and maintain the infrastructure of the Internet.” While Variety reported that the response “took issue with some of the bill’s provisions,” Ars Technica thought it bigger news, reporting that the administration had “joined the ranks of skeptics of the Stop Online Piracy Act.”

Glenn Beck might argue that this scanty media coverage is evidence of government bloat—here we have a government official who, over four years in the administration, did little to make the news besides release lengthy and thorough reports at regular intervals. But it’s more likely evidence that Espinel skillfully handled the position she was hired into, a job that made her vulnerable to criticisms of pro-industry bias.

One detail that the media noted over time about Espinel was that she was a good listener. She made an effort to canvas groups and voices across the copyright world, including the reporters who cover her issues. Wired noted at one point that she had “reached out to Wired late Monday to explain that Uncle Sam is seeking the public’s input for ideas on how to combat intellectual property theft” and gamely offered its own list. A better indication of her approach, though, comes from TechDirt’s Masnick, who wrote that Espinel had “been kind enough to personally reach out to us multiple times since taking on the job” and that “while I do not always agree with Espinel or the administration in how it handles these things, I have found them to be very open to actually listening to concerns from people…Espinel, at the very least, is actually interested in opposing viewpoints and the more detailed, thoughtful arguments she hears, the better.” 

If her goal was to prove that she was not “Hollywood’s own representative,” she succeeded: By the time she left last week, Deadline Hollywood had been reporting how “MPAA chafed over what it considers the White House’s limited effort to reduce ad sales to web pirates”—a policy Espinel oversaw. 

Disclosure: CJR has received funding from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to cover intellectual-property issues, but the organization has no influence on the content.

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Sarah Laskow is a writer and editor in New York City. Her work has appeared in print and online in Grist, Good, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications. Tags: , ,