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The US copyright con is out of control

Comment Call for life sentences highlights systemic daftness
Wed May 16 2007, 15:45
THIS MORNING THE American government is seriously talked about locking people up for life for making illegal copies of Windows. We should not be too surprised, for the last two or three years this idea of stealing people's ideas, music or videos has been a major obsession, particularly with American law makers.

To an observer, the US legal system lookss pretty much a pile of lunacy, where vengeful reactionary laws are bypassed by the rich. The Paris Hiltons of this world get their sentences cut and the poor end up being sentenced for years for the same offence. But it will finally reach the point of absurdity when you can be locked up for life because someone copies a bit of software or a song.

The RIAA can bleat, "hey it is theft". But even that argument wears thin when you start locking up people for life for it. We seem to have returned to the 18th century, when the UK transported people for stealing a sack of potatoes or hung you for stealing a horse.

Allowing rich and powerful pressure groups that much control of the legal system is dragging it backwards and lowering the standards of the universe.

By raising the profile of copyright theft beyond what it really is, you reduce the creditability of your case and the value of the justice system generally. You get life for murder, or serious rape cases or crimes against humanity. Now, if the new law goes ahead, you will get ten years for downloading half a song from eDonkey which you could not even play. It will be a good idea for a network manager who is caught with a dodgy copy of Windows to attempt a getaway with a sawn-off shotgun.

US society is finally losing control of its legal system if you can lose your liberty for angering a company. If the law goes ahead, Microsoft can lock up Linus Torvalds for nicking its software. He, and his Linux friends, might make a case that Windows contains parts of his code, but evidence seems to indicate that the American courts back those with the most money.

So far, US attempts to export its war on privacy have been met with half-hearted support from the rest of the world. This is not because we are sloppy or soft on piracy. I have sat through shed-loads of court cases where pirates have gone to jail or faced fines. But it is because the European approach fits into a basically rational legal system which is harder to hijack by business interests. Therefore it is more in proportion to reality.

It should be pointed out that these business interests are not necessarily acting in the best interests of the US foreign policy either. While many countries are making inroads into China, Russia and India, American diplomats are hamstrung by the fact that they have to harp on about copyright theft. Indeed in China, the fact that it has a vibrant piracy market is more likely to attract the attention of the diplomats than human rights abuses. By this standard it seems that America is more likely to go to war over piracy than it is to prevent genocide.

What the RIAA, and now apparently the US government, does not understand is that by blowing this out of proportion they target the people they need to support them. There are real pirates who make huge amounts of cash peddling copied CDs and then there are kids who share a song they like. There is a difference. Society knows with its own moral compass that a mafia-run organisation to mass produce DVDs is not the same as a kid sharing a movie with a mate.

In reality the only difference between the two is that the kids are easier to catch. While the RIAA stuffs up the careers of university students the mafia operations are being ignored and are laughing all the way to the bank. The next generation of lawyers and police are being barred from prosecuting the next generation of criminals.

History says that you can only persecute the middle ground for so long before the people get miffed. Jailing IT managers for life because they have a copy of Windows that Microsoft's Genuine Advantage police are certain is pirated is going to alienate a lot of people. When the middle ground moves, it is fairly likely they will not move in favour of the RIAA and its paid for political chums. When this happens there will be more calls for the copyright holders to be put in their box and to get a sense of perspective. µ

Pirating Microsoft Windows will get you a life sentence


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