Music and Tech Change, What About Laws?

by on under tech-policy
4 minute read

Last semester the students in the Humphrey Institute's Science and State class were assigned to write a pseudo letter to the editor on a current issue in science or technology from the perspective of a sitting policy maker. I choose to put on my Senator cap and write about the ridiculousness of damages being awarded in piracy trails, with a particular emphasis on the trial of Minnesota resident Jammie Thomas-Rasset. Given the recent activity that has occurred in that case (Ars coverage here,) I figured now is as good a time as any to throw it up on the Internet.

As a kid I collected baseball cards. I spent a lot of my allowance on cards, I traded cards with friends, and one day I even stole a pack of cards. I remember standing in the store wanting those cards. Then I noticed that nobody was around, so I quickly grabbed the pack and put them in my pocket. What I had not noticed was the security mirror mounted on the wall. The manager saw me, confronted me, and took the cards back. Then he demanded that I pay him $80,000 in criminal fees and damages. Of course I did not have that much money, so I was forced to spend the next three years working long hours for the store to pay off the penalty.  I was working so hard that I could not go to school and I could not see my friends. My life was ruined.

OK, that last part didn't happen. It would have been ridiculous for the store owner to charge me such an ridiculous amount for stealing an item that was only worth a dollar. Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened to Jammie Thomas Rasset, of Brainerd. Rasset has been ordered by a jury to pay nearly two million dollars after being found guilty of downloading and sharing twenty four songs. This award of $80,000 per song is allowed by the Copyright Act, the rational of which is the product of a different era and is in desperate need for an update.

The Copyright Act was written in 1976 and allows for awards between $750 and $150,000 per act of infringement. At the time this range of penalty made sense. The means to produce copies were very expensive, so copyright infringement was limited to a small number of individuals and groups that engaged in large scale bootlegging. Given this large scale nature, it made sense that a single person or group running such an operation could have cost a copyright holder tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue. With this in mind, the Copyright Act was written so that copyright holders could collect lost revenue from the bootleggers.

Times have changed. Thanks to the PC and the Internet, many, many more people can produce and distribute copies of material and each person is responsible for a much smaller amount of lost revenue. We will never know how many copies of each song Mrs. Rasset distributed, but a safe assumption would be dozens for each song, not tens of thousands. Given the one dollar value of each song, it would be fair to say that Rasset caused, at most, about two thousand dollars worth of damage to copyright holders. Yet Mrs. Rasset is facing a penalty of 1.92 million dollars. This is more money then most people earn in their entire career. Mrs. Rasset will surely have to declare bankruptcy. Her financial life is ruined. Does this sound like an appropriate punishment for someone who shared a couple of dozen songs online?

The eighth amendment protects citizens from cruel and unusual punishment in criminal cases. While the eighth amendment does not apply to civil law, its spirit should apply to all laws. Current copyright law does not consider this spirit. It is for this reason that I am supporting Representative Doe's modification to the Copyright Act, which will reduce copyright penalties for peer-to-peer users to a maximum of $100 per song. To my colleagues in the Senate and the House: I ask that you be leaders in copyright reform and support this modification so that the people who you represent are not subject to excessive penalties. And to the people of Minnesota, and the entire nation, I ask that you echo my call for copyright reform. Technology has changed our economy and our country, it is about time our legal system changes too.

Copyright Act, Intellectual Property, Jammie Thomas-Rasset
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