Sunday, April 18, 2010

Thou Shalt Not Infringe Intellectual Properties

I was at the Lupa Zoo last weekend, which was a lot of fun. It's always a pleasure to see and feed exotic animals. Stationed throughout the zoo were boxes with bags of peanuts and crackers. There was a little sign asking for $2 or $5 (depending on size), and informing us "Don't Steal." The honor system was at work.

What's interesting to me is that the food was ultimately destined for the animal's bellies, whether via my hand or some employee's. In a sense, we weren't buying the physical food, we were buying the experience of feeding the animals. The gift shop wasn't based on the honor system: there would be an actual, real expense to stealing a stuffed animal. The profit from the feed bags certainly helps keep the zoo going, but if an individual stole a bag who wouldn't have purchased one otherwise, the zoo doesn't really lose anything.

These economics are the same as noncommercial copyright violations (AKA piracy). And seeing the parallels has really convinced me that the honor system is best in both situations. The new Intellectual Property Czar had a request for comments recently, and the media industries weighed in with their hopes for our future: censorship of the Internet, spyware on our computers to detect any unethical behavior, federal cops enforcing these edicts. Free wifi spots will be a thing of the past. Youtube may be as well. For one thing, this opens us up for abuses (will the ability to freely spy on everything any American does with his computer be limited to downloading music? Australian censorship is already being used to prevent access to any information about euthanasia). But even if you trust our government, it legitimizes the actions of nations like Iran and China, who use this sort of information to capture and torture human rights activists.

Groups like the RIAA and MPAA like to present our options as either accepting censorship and surveillance, or just letting our entertainment industries die. But the idea that laws are the only way to influence behavior is a scary one. If I hadn't paid for the bag of feed, I wouldn't have been fined $2 million. I've just been taught stealing is wrong, absent laws. Cigarette's are a bad choice, but we let people make that choice. Plenty feel premarital sex, or at the very least adultery, are wrong, but we don't punish either of those with fines or jail time. Adultery in particular seems far more hurtful to another human being then downloading music, but we don't legislate against it. Why?

Because we previously understood that it isn't the courts role to dish out vengeance for every little wrong. Especially when an action occurs between two consenting adults (as piracy does), the violations to our freedoms necessary to enforce the law are far too burdensome to be worthwhile. Instead, we have another tactic: we teach children the difference between right and wrong. How about instead of spying, censorship and lawsuits, we just teach our children how buying things lets the producers keep producing? And if the occasional free loader declines, or if a family struggling to feed themselves takes a movie they couldn't afford, or we download a movie because our original dvd has broken, who cares? Of the ten commandments, I only count three we legislate. Do business models deserve a place above the ten commandments?

I recommend we all acknowledge piracy is bad, and then give up on the hunt to eradicate it from the earth.

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