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File-sharing felons?

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Murderers, rapists, file sharers. They would share the common status of felons in the United States if the Author, Consumer and Computer Owner Protection and Security bill passes in the US Congress. ACCOPS would punish users who attempt to share copyrighted files on the Internet with fines up to $250,000 and five years in already overcrowded jails.

While it is wrong to deprive music labels and movie studios of potential earnings by sharing their product for free, treating AOL kiddies, university students, and others who would illegally share their favourite songs more harshly than drug dealers is equally incorrect. How is marginally devaluing Britney Spears' latest shriekfest by sharing it online a crime more severe than the misdemeanor of stealing the same CD at gunpoint?

The problem is not simply that Democratic House Representatives John Conyers and Howard Berman won their last election bids with significant financial support from Hollywood and the music industry, or that they would even propose to further constipate the justice system with potentially millions of prosecutions under ACCOPS. The problem is the content industry's inability to adapt in an age where their century-old business model, where content is tied to physical media, is faltering.

Words like "piracy" and "theft"--used to evoke emotion to replace reason when discussing how illegal duplication of creativity hurts the $40-billion content industry--fail to describe the fundamental, inescapable differences between taking tracks of music from the Internet and a shipment of discs that contain music or other ideas. To steal "intellectual property," if such a thing exists, one would have to fraudulently transfer the registration of some protected material to one's own name, an act clearly unrelated to copying music. At best, file sharing "pirates" are illegally advertising and enjoying the product in ways the seller never intended, at worst freeloaders spend their money on some other segment of the economy which content producers do not control.

Because of such repeated attempts to continuously and ambiguously redefine the "intellectual property" space in their favour, a number of contradictions have emerged in the content industry.

Stores like HMV either sell fancy pieces of round plastic, or licenses to the content delivered on those bits of plastic. If commercial music is a bunch of different coasters, why do they try to uniformly charge $20 more than cost per disc, despite differences on what is on them? If commercial music is a license to hear content, why is it not free to legally change the container the content is in?

The industry wants to equate the misappropriations of containers and the ideas they contain, but has not called for special or even equally harsh fines for people who take a DVD or other goods from stores versus "intellectual property" thieves. (If it did, the "but dad, you steal satellite signals" kid from the badly re-re-re-re-edited commercial would get some unexpected and unwanted life experience shortly.)

Their interest is in obtaining special protections, not for the artists they represent or the public, but for their bottom line, as is their right. Similarly, it is our interest and right to demand the reasonable will of the people prevail in our system by decriminalizing gratuitous copying, which according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation would otherwise imprison 60 million Americans under ACCOPS.

While ACCOPS will probably die an undignified death before reaching a vote in Congress, one only wonders what kind of compromise bill will be born of it, and how much irrationality will leak across the border as content.

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