Friday, April 27, 2007

Jack Valenti

Jack Valenti’s death yesterday was a sad event. In my years in Washington, I had many occasions to interact with him. On every occasion, he was honest, forthright, helpful, colorful, and a helluva lot of fun to be with. You knew you were in the presence of greatness and felt privileged to be with him. He was particularly good at one-on-one meetings with members of Congress. His advice was always straight, never slanted, and gladly taken. One occasion sticks out in this respect. After getting taken to the cleaners by the broadcasters in their successful efforts to get retransmission consent, I came up with what I thought was a brilliant solution to reverse their victory, and which my boss, the chairman of the subcommittee,, Mr. Hughes, agreed to introduce on the first day of the next session (the 103d Congress) as H.R. 12. (S. 12 had been the bill in the 102d Congress in which the broadcasters got their booty, so we reserved the number as an inside joke).

The bill came to me complete, in a flash one day while jogging in Rock Creek Park, and it was , I thought, a work of great beauty: simple, elegant (in the drafting sense), extremely short (one sentence), very easy to understand, and grounded in fundamental copyright law. Nevertheless, it had the effect (unstated) of repealing both retransmission consent and the Section 111 compulsory license.

Section 501 of title 17, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following:

`(f) A television broadcast station is an infringer of copyright and is subject to the remedies provided for in this chapter (other than section 506) if such station, without the express written consent of the copyright owner of a work broadcast by such station, authorizes the secondary transmission of such copyrighted work by a cable system or other multichannel video programming distributor.'

To this day, I believe it is the best work I have ever done, which not only shows that my best is very poor indeed, but it explains why to this day I remain deeply interested in statutory drafting, which I regard as high art if practiced correctly.

I was immensely proud when the bill was introduced, and was dying to see what the MPAA and Mr. Valenti thought of it since it would, if enacted, have helped them tremendously. Mr. Valenti asked for a meeting with Congressman Hughes. I went to the meeting in Mr. Hughes’ office. Mr. Valenti lavishly praised the ingenuity of the bill, but asked Mr. Hughes not to advance it, since it had zero chance of passing. Mr. Hughes accepted Mr. Valenti’s advice, and my work of art was DOA.

Mr. Valenti could have taken a number of approaches, such as urging hearings, using the bill as a trading card for something else, etc. But he didn’t: he did the honorable thing, and in private: he asked us not to proceed even though the bill was very favorable to him. That was the Jack Valenti I knew. It became a parlor game to quote some his wild metaphors, like the Boston Strangler-VCR quip. That was show business and he was a masterful showmen. But no one should mistake that for his real self. He was a gentleman in the old school sense who always kept his word and called it as he saw it. I am deeply honored to have known him. May he rest in peace.


Zvi said...

This is a lovely tribute. Just out of curiosity, could you tell us what the language of the bill would have been?

William Patry said...

Thanks, Ubertrout. I will try and dig it out of my garage today and post it. Alas, I can't quite remember it, and with the buildup of it, I want to get it right.

Anonymous said...

Yes, well said, Professor.

The outgoing French Culture Minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, has published this fine tribute to Jack:

Anonymous said...

Jack Valenti leaves the stage and our play is the poorer for it.

Claire said...

This is very nice to read, I always wondered what Mr. Valenti was like. I think this might be the text of the bill HR 12, 103rd congress (assuming this works as a permanent link)fli

William Patry said...

Bless you Claire, I have amended the original post to include the text of the bill.

Anonymous said...

But he hated the public domain. He never denied having proposed that copyright should be forever less one day.

William Patry said...


I didn't agree with his position on term, but he was accurately advancing his client's interests, and with a panache not found in others. We can disagree with others and still admire them as advocates and as people, as I did Mr. Valenti.

Anonymous said...

A great actor...but as head of the MPAA he was just a fascist little blowhard.