When copyrights do not protect artists, should we try something new?
Why the RIAA should have won (though the fine was too high)
If anybody benefits from inventions, the list should include the inventor. Hence we have patents and copyrights. But now they no longer protect the basement inventor so much as protect huge corporations from competition from basement inventors. What to do? Some ideas come from CNET Networks which posted a blog, The Iconoclast, which posted this article.
by Declan McCullagh, October 5, 2007The Recording Industry Association of America probably should have won its lawsuit against a Minnesota woman accused of sharing songs through the Kazaa file-sharing network.
There was enough evidence linking Jammie Thomas' computer to an IP address that was offering a slew of copyrighted songs to other Kazaa users. A jury in Minnesota, hardly the record labels' home turf, unanimously thought so too.
The problem isn't the verdict. It's the penalty.
After decades of special-interest lobbying by large holders of intellectual property rights, U.S. copyright law has spiraled out of control. It's been transformed from limited protections of authors' rights for 14 years to a juggernaut with criminal enforcement, sky-high penalties, and up to 120 years of legal protection.
Copyright no longer abides by the fundamental principle of law, which is that the punishment should fit the crime. In this case, Thomas got slapped with a $222,000 bill. (And I wouldn't be surprised to see attorney's fees add another $100,000 on top of it.)
"It doesn't strike a regular person that by passing a CD around the neighborhood, they should have their house taken away," says Lew Rockwell, president of the free-market Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. "And by electronic means it shouldn't be any different."
Copyright law is, as Berkeley law professor Pam Samuelson points out, way too verbose; it's now swollen to an unbelievable 200 pages long. It's complex, incomprehensible, designed to favor large copyright holders over defendants, and thoroughly out of touch with reality.
This should be no surprise. The technical term for this is "rent-seeking," meaning special-interest coalitions who pressure the government to transfer wealth to them. The general public (reasonably) can't keep track of the minutiae of proposals to expand copyright law, but RIAA lobbyists can devote 100% of their time to the job. What happens is that copyright law continues to clamp down on Americans, inexorably, like a ratchet.
Consider what aggressive rent-seeking has achieved for the music and movie industries -- and some certain large software companies -- in the last decade alone: The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The Family Entertainment and Copyright Act (more P2P penalties). The No Electronic Theft Act (file-swapping criminalized).
So what should Jammie Thomas have been required to pay? She's accused of sharing 24 songs, or two CDs worth. We don't know how many people downloaded those songs, but if 10 people did, that's perhaps $250 in value. If 100 people did, that's $2,500, and so on.
Walter Block, an economics professor at Loyola University, is no fan of copyright law at all; he'd abolish it. But his suggested penalties for physical larceny are worth taking into account. "My view is two teeth for a tooth, plus expenses, plus cost of capturing, plus a scaring penalty" that would provide additional deterrence and avoid allowing the wealthy to flout the law. In other words, let the punishment fit the crime.
Under the judge's interpretation of copyright law, unfortunately, the RIAA wasn't required to prove how many songs were downloaded. Maybe nobody did; maybe thousands of people did. All the RIAA needed to do is prove Thomas made them "available" through Kazaa.
Although we can't make any reasonable estimate, we can nevertheless say it's unlikely that Thomas would be required to pay $222,000 plus attorneys fees if copyright law were reasonable, fair, and just. But it is now none of those, so she is.
JJS: To hold a patent or copyright, we could let the inventor pay however much they think their idea is worth. If somebody thinks it’s worth more, they could outbid “herm” (how’s that for an invention?). Then nobody would sit on good new gizmos; society would benefit from them sooner. To protect originality, inventors and backers would jump in first and grab commanding market share. Somebody succeeding at doing that is why we don’t say tissue but Kleenex.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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