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Search For Pirating Can Infringe on Freedom

10 Aug, 2004 By: Holly J. Wagner

There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The intelligence that led us into war was bad. The connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden was tenuous at best. But we plunged ahead, and now we're sinking in a very expensive quagmire of our own making.

That doesn't have much to do with video, unless you see the parallel in the content industries' tack with content pirates real and imagined. The Iraq war is, inadvertently I suspect, the policy template for the copyright war.

No sane American supports terrorism or child abuse. But it's getting pretty tiresome that everyone from the U.S. Department of Defense to the content industries are seeing terrorists behind every curtain and Web page.

We hear that peer-to-peer networks are bustling hubs of child pornography (and, oh yeah, they induce innocent kids to steal music) and that piracy at offshore replicators is rampant and funding terrorism.

I don't dispute the content industries' right to pursue their copyrights — it's an important part of the national economy and our creativity. But I do object to using abused children and terrorists as a shield to sell the real goal, which these days is usually expanding copyrights and media ownership.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has been on a litigation tear, suing everybody and their grandmother (really) in fishing expeditions looking for copyright violations. It sounds suspiciously like invading a foreign country looking for nonexistent weapons: Once you're in the country, you might as well shoot someone.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has, so far, taken a publicly less hawkish approach, opting to enforce license agreement contracts against equipment manufacturers who provide licensed decryption technology to unlicensed subcontractors. Some in the industry say that's because MPAA president Jack Valenti, this industry's Colin Powell, sees the down side of coming out with guns blazing. As with international politics, a change of administration may signal a change of policy direction.

On the other hand, industry lobbyists have been busy, getting a bill, the INDUCE Act, introduced in the legislature. That bill is so broad and vague that it could lead to criminal penalties for anyone from actual content pirates to hardware manufacturers to journalists who write reviews of gadgets capable of copying copyrighted content.

It's interesting — and Orwellian — that an industry built on the exchange of often controversial ideas is so eager to squelch any ideas but its own. The same way cultural imperialists declare that their actions are designed to keep the world safe and advance democracy, the technological imperialists swear their actions are to protect and foster creative exchange.

Terrorism and piracy are legitimate political and economic concerns, but the people who make the rules get even scarier than the people they pursue when the mere mention of terrorism becomes a license to destroy our own freedoms.

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