US Government Consults Public On Illegal File-Sharing

The PRO-IP Act is a United States law that aims to combat copyright infringement by increasing civil and criminal penalties for offenders. Copyright czar Victoria Espinel is now seeking comments from the public on piracy's apparent disastrous effect on the economy and health and safety, as well as proposed punishments and enforcement.

The Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property (PRO-IP) Act was one of the last pieces of legislation passed by President Bush back in 2008. The purpose of the act is to toughen current anti-piracy measures.

Among other things the act calls for harsher punishments, the creation of a dedicated FBI anti-piracy unit and a copyright czar who reports directly to the White House. Last year President Obama appointed Victoria Espinel as the new copyright czar and she is now going full steam ahead with the new anti-piracy plans.

For these new plans Espinel is now looking for comments and input from the United States public. Although this might come across as an open and transparent process, the czar already seems to have made up her mind, indicated by the leading nature of the questions.

Yesterday a request for written submissions from the public went out and the copyright czar wants answers to two basic questions, answers that may or may not be used for the development of the new anti-piracy plans. Let’s take a look at what the Government is asking.

In the request we read that the first question the public should respond to is “regarding the costs to the U.S. economy resulting from intellectual property violations, and the threats to public health and safety created by infringement.”

The second part deals with “detailed recommendations from the public regarding the objectives and content of the Joint Strategic Plan and other specific recommendations for improving the Government’s intellectual property enforcement efforts.”

To summarize, the copyright czar wants the public to come up with examples and ideas detailing how piracy affects society and how it should be combated. Unfortunately the request seems to indicate that it is already concluded that piracy has a negative impact and that tougher measures are needed.

It is not too late of course to prove the opposite and voice our concerns. Let’s elaborate a little on the two questions.

The first question is an easy one. Although piracy might hurt some parts of the entertainment industry there is no objective and conclusive report that proves how it negatively effects the entire industry, let alone the United States economy as a whole.

One of the most authoritative reports on the economic and cultural consequences of file-sharing on the music, movie and games industries was published last year. The report, which was commissioned by the government, estimated that file-sharing has a positive effect on the Dutch economy. While it was recognized that the entertainment industry suffers some losses, these don’t outweigh the positive effects of file-sharing.

Other academic publications mainly show that music piracy has no, or a positive effect on actual sales. The more people download through illegal channels, the more they tend to pay for music. This indicates that music fans do want to pay for music but that they download in addition, which could be due to the lack of unlimited download services.

The second question posed by the czar deals with the enforcement side of copyright infringement. One of the main questions here is how to deter people from downloading files illegally.

Again we’d like to start off with pointing to the Dutch report mentioned earlier. In the report it was concluded that measures to combat piracy should not be implemented before the entertainment industries have come up with sufficient legal online alternatives. This suggests that the entertainment industries are in part causing piracy by failing to offer decent competitive DRM-free products.

Furthermore, it is very doubtful that harsher punishments and stricter enforcement will have any effect. Last year the RIAA won two major lawsuits against individual file-sharers and this hasn’t changed the attitude or behavior of the average file-sharer at all. If anything, tougher enforcement will drive piracy underground, motivating the public to hide their identities online.

The bottom line is that the enforcement question is irrelevant. Technology will always stay ahead of any new type of legislation. The new three-strikes law in France for example can be easily circumvented and the same will be true for other measures. Much more can be done by focusing on the core of the problem, that is, taking away the incentive to download illegally.

The issues we have briefly touched on here are just the tip of the iceberg, and we assume that our readers can easily list many more. If so, please take this opportunity to have your voices heard. The US Pirate Party, who alerted us about this public consultation, has a mailing form which you can use, but regular email works fine too. For those who plan to comment we would advise to include as many credible references as possible.

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