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Copyright war going too far

By Derek Lazzaro

Oct. 18, 2004 9:00 p.m.

“This report is not an ending, but a beginning.” So
concluded a sweeping new U.S. Department of Justice report on the
theft of intellectual property. The report, issued earlier this
month, lays out a Department of Justice strategy that will make
piracy punishable by criminal enforcement as well as civil
procedures. In the process, John Ashcroft’s Justice
Department will bust down doors around the country and turn
grandmas and students into felons.

If you think I’m being an alarmist, know that I’m
simply mimicking a strategy I saw in the Justice Department’s
report, which opens with a horror story about a boy who nearly died
while using counterfeit products.

But let’s be honest. This isn’t really about fake
Duracell batteries. The big players in the copyright wars are the
record companies, movie studios and software corporations.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of Sept. 13,
2004, entertainment companies alone had contributed over $22
million to various candidates for this upcoming election, In the
last election cycle of 2002, the industry contributed just under
$40 million.

(Compare that to oil and gas industries, which contributed $25
million in 2002 and $17 million this year. Or pharmaceuticals, with
$12 million this cycle and $29 million in 2002.)

The entertainment companies aren’t handing out the
Benjamins because they want to export “The Little
Mermaid” to Iraq.

They are worried about piracy, and Ashcroft’s Justice
Department is more than willing to go the extra mile to help them
in their crusade.

To be fair, the theft of intellectual property is a serious
concern. According to the report and other sources, intellectual
property industries contributed over 6 percent of the
nation’s gross domestic product ““ or about $626 billion
in 2002. Imagine how high that number would be if everyone in China
paid for their movies and everyone at UCLA paid for their copy of
Microsoft Office.

But that doesn’t mean we should turn college students into
hardened criminals.

Like the war on drugs, fighting the copyright war will simply
spawn yet another massive bureaucracy, more crowded prisons and
another government failure.

To give you an idea of how draconian the Justice Department
wants to be, here is an example:

The report points out the many good “principles” of
the Piracy Deterrence and Education Act. The PDEA would make
sharing $1,000 worth of files a felony warranting three years in
prison and up to a $250,000 fine. Even if no one downloads those
files, you are still guilty of a felony.

Share a copy of Adobe Photoshop, a dozen albums, some movies
““ and you’re sunk.

I’m not suggesting that copyright owners or the Justice
Department should ignore piracy. But there is a difference between
ignoring piracy and turning the better part of the nation’s
population into felons.

The Justice Department should not try to fry small-time
file-swappers when its main worries should be terrorism, violent
crime and Enron-style crooks.

With all this, I’m afraid that Ashcroft and his cronies
are serious when they say this is just the beginning.

If the Justice Department is content to use the tools already
available to it, it can probably only do so much damage. But if its
leaders are serious about criminalizing copyright infringement,
they are going to want an entirely new toolbox of tricks.

Just as Ashcroft’s Patriot Act changed the way we deal
with terrorists, this report and the bills that follow may change
the way we deal with intellectual crime. We can only hope the
Justice Department will not start yet another war for the United
States to fight.

Lazzaro is a fourth-year political science and psychology
student. He is the editorial development director for the Daily
Bruin. E-mail him at [email protected]

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