Clear And Present Danger
Last month US Attorney General, John Ashcroft stated
that file swapping and peer-to-peer (P2P) networks pose "a clear danger to our
economy and the health, safety, and security of the American people." He
then announced that America is going to "declare war" on such
Let's see, according to the US Department of Justice, last year
in America, 1.4 million cases or murder, rape or aggravated assault
were reported, 1.3 million motor vehicles were stolen, and 2.2 million
homes were broken into. Sadly, these are some of the highest crime rates
in the developed world, but the nation's top law-enforcement official
is telling us that the real problem is a bunch of kids downloading
songs on the Internet?
Now, there is no question than Internet-based file sharing is hurting
record sales to some degree, and as bandwidth increases it may even
hurt video rental sales. Unfortunately, this illegal file swapping is
proving very hard to shut down because most of it occurs directly between
individuals on P2P networks rather than via centralized servers,
which are easily located by law-enforcement personal.
Adding to Hollywood's headaches, in August, US federal courts ruled
that regardless of what files are being shared over them, the P2P networks
themselves are perfectly legal. There is, in fact, something
fundamentally democratic about the decentralized, user-controlled
nature of P2P networks. For example, outragedmoderates.org launched its
Downloading for Democracy campaign in which over 700 government
documents -- including torture memos related to Abu Ghraib prison
and an Intelligence Committee report on what the government knew before
it invaded Iraq - were made available to the public over P2P networks.
The logic is simple. The same technology that makes it hard to
stop the distribution of pornography and pop songs also makes it hard to
preventthe dissemination of more worthwhile information.
The Gathering Storm
The rhetoric already sounds eerily similar to that of the US
government's remarkably successful War on Drugs. Questionable and
ever-increasing dollar amounts are being thrown about as the "cost
to society," and legislators are anxiously rationalizing why normal
constitutional protections should not apply to those suspected of
such heinous crimes as giving away a copy of the latest Britney Spears
Copyright holders do, of course, have a formidable arsenal with
which to go after violators, but it is never enough. Ashcroft's report, for
example, recommends criminalizing even the possession of such material.
In other words, if your son is caught with a downloaded MP3, he
does not get a stern talking to or a hefty fine. He gets a criminal record
and possible jail time. But hey, this is war, right? We should have
zero-tolerance for these scumbags who drag down corporate profits.
Already, the media industry has the right to bypass normal privacy
protections for those they -- not law-enforcement officials -- suspect
of copyright infringement. They are now demanding the right to break
into these people's computers and not be held legally accountable
for any damage they may cause.
Already, the media industry requires that consumers pay for technology
that prevents DVD players from playing cheaper, imported DVDs. They
are now pushing for a law requiring that these devices be installed
on all new computers at the consumer's expense.
The recently introduced Induce Act would go even further by simply
outlawing any technology that threatens the media industry's business
model. The pending legislation makes it illegal to manufacture or
distribute technology that can be used to violate copyright law
-- regardless of any beneficial and non-infringing uses the technology
might have. Of course, since this potentially outlaws everything
from the Xerox machine to the iPod, special exemptions are being made
for existing technologies sold by large corporations. The idea, it seems,
is to simply freeze technology where it is today.
Already, the media companies are suing file-swappers in civil courts
and winning. And that's good. They are now demanding that the taxpayers
pay their legal bills. The recently introduced "Pirate Act"
would allow the US government to bring civil suits against file swappers on behalf
of the media industry. According to Senator Orrin Hatch, tens of thousands
of Americans would have to be sued and only the government has "the
resources and moral authority to pursue such a campaign."
No Quarter Given
I think we all need to stop and take a deep breath
and put the rhetoric aside.
This is not a war, and it has nothing to do with moral authority.
It's simply about money. That doesn't mean it's not important, but we
need to see this problem for what it is.
The media giants are trying to increase their profits in any way
they can. If they thought they could get a law passed requiring everyone
to sign their paychecks over to them, their lobbyists would be on the
phones right now. They don't care about fair use. They don't care
about consumer privacy or rights. And you know something? That's just
fine. It's not their job to care, and we should not expect it of them.
Lawmakers, on the other hard, are supposed to be looking out for
our interests, and clearly they are not doing so. The idea behind copyright
law is to provide monetary incentive for artists to create new works
that will eventually become public domain. In other words, copyright
law is valuable because it benefits both the artists and society as
It's true that the media giants are losing money, but why should
we care? Every time a new technology enters the marketplace companies
that can't adapt quickly lose money. Sometimes they even go out
of business. Perhaps it's unfair, but that's how capitalism works.
Large companies in all industries tend to have trouble adapting
to new technology. It's the small agile firms that usually discover the
new business models. The large firms then either imitate the small
innovators or simply acquire them.
There are already hundreds of innovative musicians, artists and
business who are making money using the Internet and P2P networks to share
works they have created and profit via merchandising, CD sales, live
performances and other means. The pieces are in place for normal
market forces to solve this problem. In fact, the artists not aligned with
the media companies are some of P2P's most vocal advocates.
P2P networks pose no threat to society as a whole. We still get
the new artistic works and new jobs. Granted, the jobs will be created by
small innovative companies and not the media giants, but that's not our
With this in mind, why should we spend millions of dollars trying
to halt the advance of technology and giving thousands of children
criminal records just to protect the short-term profits of a handful of companies?
How do we benefit by funding Hollywood's private war against us?