A July 25 letter sent to Attorney General John Ashcroft by 19 American legislators asked him to devote more Justice Department resources in the fight against peer-to-peer networks and users swapping digital media without permission.
Forget the fact that the FBI is neck-deep in an internal crisis of confidence and competence, having a hard time recruiting and keeping qualified agents, and shifting from a diverse federal law enforcement entity to one in-line with the emerging threats to American society from terrorism.
No, it seems that one of the highest priorities for the Justice Department - behind that simple task of securing America's Homeland - should be copyright enforcement....at least in the eyes of the Recording Industry Association of America. Of course, this is made all the easier when "peer-to-peer" - a valuable technological architecture - is interpreted and subsequently marketed by the RIAA as synonymous with "pirating" and evil economic - potentially terrorist - activities aimed against the $40 billion entertainment industry. And, of course, Congress, mental wizards that they are, believe whatever they're asked to believe so long as the campaign contributions are of the right type and amount.
We have the "War on Drugs" and the "War on AIDS" and the "War on Terror" -- does this mean we'll see the "War on File Sharing" as the next great American undertaking with the same effect as these other "Wars" over the years?
When news of this bipartisan letter broke on Friday, RIAA CEO Hilary Rosen, was, as always, quick to praise its contents, saying that "mass copying off the Internet is illegal and deserves to be a high priority for the Department of Justice." One wonders if she wears special shoes to be able to jump so quickly to applaud anything that might in some - any - way lead to profit assurance for her constituent record companies.
It was only last month that Rosen was quick to applaud the controversial P2P-hack bill introduced by one of their owned Congressman, Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA). Among other things, the proposed bill (Register article here) would create loopholes for cyber-criminals to potentially escape from and also turn any authorized copyright holder into a potentially legal hacker. While Rosen was more than happy to quickly jump in and praise the proposal, Berman's bill was so controversial that even Rosen's evil counterpart, Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association, took pause when the bill was introduced, noting that "there are aspects of the bill we believe need changing as it moves through the legislative process" -- implying that the powers proposed in the Berman Bill - legalizing electronic attacks and providing attacker immunity for liability in copyright enforcement activities -- were intended to be only for the large entertainment empires, not for any copyright holder no matter how small.
Both the RIAA and MPAA act like drug addicts in deep denial, desperately begging for something - anything - to ease their craving for their addictive substances, but it's the RIAA that takes first prize in the desperate-moves category. Declining profits are blamed on Napster, peer-to-peer file sharing, Webcasting, MP3 file formats, the availability of blank CDs and hard drives, and the fact all PCs now come with a CD burner as standard issue. Anything but the fact that studios have produced less and less quality music that folks want to buy, or that studios are more than happy to negotiate ludicrous contracts with artists that only deliver mediocre album sales (*cough* Mariah Carey) or one-hit wonders. They've happily saturated the pop market with teen bands that look, dance, and sound so alike it's impossible to tell them apart. They also forget that CD prices have gone up steadily over the past decade - and that when the economy takes a downturn, paying $20 for a song or two is not worth it to most people. Further, their efforts so far in providing music over the Internet - to 'compensate' for the loss of Napster - makes current Afghanistan politics look like a utopian form of government.
Granted, organized piracy (as opposed to individual copying and/or sharing) has caused Hollywood some economic damage, but I don't see Hilary, Jack, Lars, or studio executives standing on lines outside soup kitchens. And the fact that someone copies or uses a CD under federal fair-use laws doesn't present a significant economic impact to the entertainment industry. If anything, casual and legal sharing of music helps broaden an artist's publicity and generate "buzz" - much as Microsoft software became so dominant in the marketplace -- not through quality, but because everyone was using it and it became the de facto standard, such as it is.
Rosen says that piracy "ultimately hurts consumers by undermining the creators' incentive to bring new works to the market." In her eyes - and in the eyes of her purchased lawmakers - the only 'creators' that should be allowed to easily bring new works to market are those under contract to RIAA's member companies. To RIAA, you're either part of their cartel or you don't matter.
Thus, we see proposals like Berman's bill, and the RIAA suggesting that all blank compact disks (and possibly hard drives) be taxed to compensate for piracy losses, even if such media are used for the backup of software and user data, not entertainment content. Most sinister is the recent proposal by Senator Fritz "Hollywood" Hollings that would mandate copyright enforcement 'features' be part of any device that can store electronic data, from computers and DVD players to microwaves, garage door openers, and rectal thermometers. The Hollings proposal would essentially force the interests of the $40 billion entertainment industry on the $500 billion-plus technology and hardware industries in a variety of industrial sectors. Talk about the mouse trying to own the elephant herd.
As users and customers (note I did not say "consumers" - "customers" implies a mutually-beneficial two-way relationship - in this case we are being exploited), we have every right to bemoan the obvious profiteering actions of these entertainment cartels to squeeze every last dime from our wallets. Sure, we will pay for quality music that's affordable, but we want a happy medium where we have the flexibility to use the entertainment content legally purchased and/or obtained in a manner consistent with the law and our expectations. Yet the entertainment cartels are only too happy to lobby for laws and technological controls that presume every customer a potential criminal until it can be proven with certainty. That's to be expected from Industrial Age business leaders - known otherwise as "The Greed Generation."
However, that's not the problem with the whole copyright enforcement debate. Sure, profits are involved, but there's much more at stake than what's being discussed in Congress or the online communities.
Freedom of choice in how one is able to bring his content to market means a greater chance of it reaching an audience. Up until Napster, the entertainment industry alone decided what artist gets supported, promoted, and published, and in what quantities. The Information Age threatens to reverse this centralized control mechanism and profit stream, enabling anyone to publish and promote their content around the world, cutting the middleman - RIAA and major studios - out of the financial equation and management process. Nobody in an established role likes to lose control, be voted out of office, or see their authority and influence erode....yet this is exactly what the Information Age is doing to the centralized entertainment industry. This helps explain some of the goofy proposals mentioned earlier -- like a Vegas gambler, the RIAA (and MPAA by extension) is hedging its bets, trying to not only maintain control of the content and media industry, but if it can't, get as much as it can through other methods, laws, and charges.
If you control the means to disseminate content, you can subsequently control the public. If you can't afford - or are not willing - to play by the 'established' means of control, you are typically left to fend for yourself in local venues and audiences.
Thanks to the Information Age, this is not the case anymore. This harsh reality terrifies the entertainment industry that will stop at nothing - no matter how ill-conceived - to keep its reign despite a failing business model and changing economic and customer environment. The copyright debate isn't only about profit, it's also about who controls information, and ultimately, people and society.
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