A Republican House staffer who penned a memo on a different kind of approach to copyright law in November of last year found himself out of work as the new Congress was seated last Thursday and the new head of the Republican Study Committee – Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) – decided not to keep him on. He finally broke his silence on the whole ordeal to Ars Technica.
Derek Khanna used to work for the Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the outgoing chairman of the Republican Study Committee. So what is this memo all about? Well back in November a memo written by Khanna for the Republican Study Committee offered a different approach to copyright law. That approach was less friendly to Hollywood and rights holders, and while it was embraced by conservative pundits in the media, the leadership of the Republican Study Committee quickly recalled the memo.
The memo on copyright reform was released and then retracted in November. At the time, Khanna had "no comment" on what had happened – even as news of his firing was making the rounds in December. At that time he was still officially on the RSC's payroll until the end of the 112th Congress. But as soon as the 113th Congress began at noon on Thursday of last, Khanna was no longer paid by the RSC and decided that he could speak about the whole affair publically.
Khanna's memo advocated reforms to the copyright system such as reducing the duration of copyright protection, capping or lowering "statutory damages," and more. No doubt this infuriated rights holders in Hollywood and elsewhere, and was in stark contrast to the positions held by many lawmakers who have been accused of letting lobbyist write some copyright legislation. At the time RSC executive director Paul Teller said that the memo was recalled because it had been published "without adequate review." Khanna says in his conversation with Ars Technica that his memo went through exactly the same review process as other RSC publications.
"There was nothing particularly unusual about this memo," he told Ars, adding that a typical RSC memo is written up by a staffer and it will go "through the process to revise it accordingly and receive the final sign-off." When an RSC staffer is preparing a memo, he is "not allowed to do peer review or show it outside the organization."
Khanna said that the purpose of the memo was to start a conversation about copyright reform and get the attention of the tech community. But the "level of backlash it received from the content industry" took him by surprise. Khanna told Ars Technica that he did not "personally hear from any members of Congress" that was upset about the memo, and refused to comment on the exact circumstances of his departure. The Washington Examiner's Tim Carney claims that Khanna was let go after Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) pressured the committee to let him go.
Khanna also told Ars Technica that the memo received broad support from conservative pundits. The New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks praised Khanna's memo, as did conservative blog Redstate.com, Jordan Bloom at The American Conservative. No Republicans have come out and endorsed Khanna's memo, for the record.
Khanna also spoke briefly about the January 2012 Internet protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act (he was on the staff of Sen. Scott Brown at the time). "The feedback was absolutely deafening," Khanna said of e-mails and phone calls from constituents opposing the legislation. "It was unlike anything I had ever seen, and most congressional staffers I worked with had seen." He said that to this day, members of Congress ask "is this the next SOPA?" when considering Internet-related legislation.
Finally he had no regrets about the memo and encouraged current staffers to bring new ideas forward. "I encourage Hill staffers to bring forth new ideas. Don't be discouraged by the potential consequences," Khanna told Ars Technica. "You work for the American people. It's your job, your obligation to be challenging existing paradigms and put forward novel solutions to existing problems."