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Thursday 17 July 2003

The $204 Trillion Threat To Society

I make it a policy not to get too exercised over proposed legislation. Every few months, some Congressman can be counted on to introduce the latest version of the National Kill The Whole Lot Of You And Burn Your Town To Cinders Act. It wouldn’t be called that, of course; all big laws these days need either to be named after children or to have cute, menacing, and/or silly acronyms. The SCREWBALL Act might have something to do with making sodomy again illegal; the PUPPIES Act would make thoughtcrime statutory; and ‘Brittney’s Law’ might, well, kill the whole lot of you and burn your town to cinders.

John Conyers and Howard Berman have introduced the Author, Consumer and Computer Owner Protection and Security Act — that’s ‘ACCOPS’ — to protect consumers and computer owners. Unless you’re a consumer and computer owner who shares copyrighted files on a peer-to-peer network, in which case the law will send you to jail for five years and fine you $250,000. For each file.

As I said, I don’t get too worked up over proposed legislation, because most of the most-idiotic stuff never becomes law. But I decided to look into just how idiotic this particular law is.

I’m on record here as opposing the current philosophy of Permanent Copyright, and of criticizing the copyright industry for ham-fisted tactics and short-sightedness. I do not, however, dispute that the copyright industry is legally, and probably ethically, in the right here. They’re only shooting themselves in the head (you’re too likely to survive a foot wound for that analogy to work), but, hey, it’s their head. Distributing copyrighted materials without license from the copyright holder is certainly illegal. The Permanent Copyright problem isn’t really at issue here, since most of what people are distributing are works that would be under copyright even without the various immoral extensions that Congress has granted over the years. And the fact that the copyright holders are idiots doesn’t matter: it’s still clearly illegal.

But how illegal is it, in any real sense? Generally, we hold that there’s no crime worse than murder, and we punish it more harshly than we do anything else. Then, at least in the United States, kidnapping seems to be the worst crime, followed by rape, followed by a range of property crimes. Generally, the more damage you do to property, or the more property you steal, the worse the punishment.

But crimes against property are treated somewhat differently, since it is at least theoretically possible to restore the victim of theft to the state he was in before the crime. If you steal $10,000 from someone and are caught, and pay back the $10,000 plus damages, it’s hard to argue that the person from whom you stole is worse off than he was before. We still want to discourage this behavior, since not all thieves are caught (and not all of them can make restitution), so we impose criminal penalties. The point, usually, is to increase the cost of getting caught to the point where the would-be criminal will choose to go straight, as it were, rather than steal things.

This is why it’s already illegal to distribute copyrighted materials. Currently, if within a 6-month period, you distribute copyrighted material with a total retail value of $1,000 or more, you can go to jail and/or be fined — and this is in addition to civil damages payable to the copyright holder.

Under the proposed law, this would be toughened a bit.

As I write this, there are 3,917,513 users on the Kazaa file-sharing network, sharing a total of 817,849,576 files. They’re not all copyrighted files, of course, but most of the non-copyrighted files are sure to be serial numbers intended to help you illegally use copyrighted software, so we’ll pretend that every file on there is illegal under the proposed ACCOPS legislation.

Assuming that the files shared are evenly spread among all the users online, and assuming perfect law enforcement, this would mean that those 3,917,513 people would each be fined over $52 million each, and they would each go to prison for slightly over 1000 years.

The jail sentences would add up to over four million man-years, at a cost to the taxpayers of more than 75 trillion dollars — but that would be offset by the fine of more than two hundred and four trillion dollars. (Though, to be fair, very few prisoners would live long enough to serve their 1043-year sentence. If we assume they’d die after an average of 45 years in prison — meaning they’re only really ‘paying their debt’ for nine songs, less than the average album, even today — it would only cost about three trillion dollars to keep Disneysociety safe — which makes this a moneymaking proposition!)

They want copyright infringement to be something you get life in prison for, and they want potential fines for one day that would be equivalent to the entire U.S. economy . The most the recording industry has even taken in in one year was $38.6 billion, in 1999. The fines for the activity on one network on one day alone would be more money than the recording industry has ever made, from Thomas Edison to J-Lo. It’d be more than one hundred times the American cost of World War II, even after adjusting for inflation. In short, not only is it insane, but the country literally could not begin to afford it.

Just to put the amount of the fine in perspective, if you were able to skim one penny from every dollar of it, you’d be able to buy and sell Bill Gates. If you had the fine in neatly-wrapped packages of 100 $100 bills, it would weigh over two million tons, and it would fill more than 33,000 40-foot shipping containers. The world’s largest container ship, the Sovereign Maersk, would require six trips to move this haul from one place to another.

It’s a pointless issue, because there aren’t anywhere near that many dollars in existence. What the Federal Reserve considers to be the ‘money supply’ — all the dollars in all the bank accounts in the world — is only about $8 trillion. The entire U.S. GDP, ever since they started keeping records in 1929, doesn’t add up to $204 trillion, even after adjusting for inflation. The proposed fine here is more than the entire economic activity of the United States since your grandparents’ time.

And yet these two jackasses have introduced this bill, presumably with straight faces — and they get paid, well, for doing it. Paid first by the taxpayer, and second, and much more richly, by Disney et al.

Posted by tino at 15:04 17.07.03
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I am so sick of congress wasting valuable time on making particular things more illegal. No new laws are required. Violating copyright is already illegal.

There’s no new laws needed for internet crime either. Fraud is already illegal. There’s even a special category for wire fraud. Isn’t that enough?

It’s not like there’s some legal ambiguity. Abducting children? Already illegal, but don’t let that stop you in making a new law against it!


Posted by: Nicole at July 17, 2003 03:49 PM

It’s because these bozos need to be able to tell their constituents back home that they’re “doing something”. If they’re not seen doing something, the reasoning goes, they won’t get elected again, and since they can’t hold a real job, the fear of losing an election causes them to do silly stuff like this. Unfortunately, most people haven’t taken even an introduction to law class, and therefore don’t know that we’ve already got most of the laws that we’re going to need, and that the best possible vote on 85% of the bills laid before Congress is a resounding “Nay”.

If stuff like this isn’t the perfect argument for term limits, I don’t know what is.

Posted by: Twonk at July 17, 2003 05:04 PM

Twonk is exactly right (except for the term limits part) the Congressmen need to appear like they are doing something. As such we have the encroachment of the federal government into matters they have no business being in (e.g. car jacking)

Posted by: Paul Johnson at July 17, 2003 06:54 PM