net.wars: The War on Some Files

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 18 July 2003

Every day, in every way, the War on Some Files is getting more and more bizarre.

Wendy M Grossman

This week saw the proposal of a new bill, attractively named ACCOPS (for Author, Consumer, and Computer Owner Protection and Security), to criminalise the downloading behaviour of more than 60 million Americans.

ACCOPS proposes raising the Department of Justice appropriation for investigating violations of Title 17 of the US Code, the section that covers copyright, by 50 percent, to $15 million. In addition, the bill wants the US to hand over information to foreign authorities to assist in enforcing foreign copyright laws (no place to hide, you see?), redefining uploading a file without the authorisation of the copyright owner as the equivalent of "the distribution, during a 180-day period, of at least 10 copies of that work with a retail value of more than $2,500". Good, then it can be a felony and you can go to jail for five years. This follows on from last year's even more bizarre "It's a crime when you do it, but it's law enforcement when we do it" proposal to allow copyright owners to hack into other people's systems if they had reason to believe those systems were holding material in violation of their copyright.

Is this all beginning to sound familiar? It should. For comparison, 60 to 65 million is approximately the number of marijuana users in America in 1988 to 1995. By the way those habits in those years are thought to have cost Americans $57 to $91 billion per year.

Now, you may be thinking that the reason Representatives John Conyers, Jr (D-Michigan) and Howard Berman (D-California) are sponsoring this bill is that they get more than a quarter of their campaign funding from the entertainment industry according to data cited on Slashdot from OpenSecrets.org. My theory's more that in this dull economy, the fact that, as Molly Ivins writes prisons are one of the few growth industries, matters. Ya gotta encourage that, right? Especially since the achingly slow trend in drug law is to relax penalties. If American prisons don't have drug users to rely on, where will the next generation of customers come from? What would they do, turn them into schools?

As the War on Some Drugs has shown, the best way to ensure the existence of a large mass of violators who can be put in prison is to advertise the product, first by publicising busts, then by advertising heavily about how dangerous the product is, and finally by trotting out an endless stream of major celebrities who confess their long-running struggle against it. The key is learning to use a short, snappy word to indicate the forbidden fruit. If you use simply the word "files" instead of the longer and more complicated "unauthorised copies", you'll find that many of the WOSD slogans can be easily recycled.

"Just say no", for example, is vague enough to be redeployable, although "Just say no to files" is stronger. "This is your brain. This is your brain on files." See?

Then we could get a host of reformed "ordinary Joe" addicts to go on TV - Oprah, perhaps - and redeem themselves by explaining how dangerous file-sharing is. "I used to go out and have friends. But for three years, all I did was sit in front of my computer and download files. I never even had time to listen to all of them, I just had to have more and more. I guess I just felt inadequate, really. Even today, when I go to a party, I have a hard time getting comfortable without my discs of files with me. But you don't have to be like me. I'm here to say, there is a way out. Hilary Rosen will save you."

The real problem with promoting file-sharing in this way, of course, is that unlike drugs it doesn't cost anything. Without the heavy burden of having to pay for it, this means that file-sharing should be free of the crime necessary to finance persistent drug habits. Of course, the entertainment industry has already thought of this, and that's why it's campaigning for a tax on blank DVD and CD media. It wouldn't take much to extend this tax to Internet access, computers, and standard hardware such as hard drives, CD and DVD burners. Not that this hasn't been done; a few years ago Germany ordered Hewlett-Packard to pay a tax on its computer systems in recognition of their inclusion of CD writers.

In the War on Some Drugs, we hear a lot about gateway drugs. These aren't what you think. According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, for example, some 60 percent of marijuana users tried cigarettes and alcohol first. And that's the point.

The best solution to this whole mess is to rid society of the "gateway behaviours" that lead them to try the harder stuff - like downloading files. Instead of fighting against the symptom, fight against the cause. Let's make watching TV, listening to the radio, and buying CDs and DVDs illegal. Choke off the supply at the source, that's the ticket.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).