U.S. Senate Bill 3325: Exactly The Wrong Law

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT)

Patrick Leahy (D-VT) was one of the Senators who sponsored S. 3325, despite his generally good track record on electronic freedom issues. See below for information on how you can help Sen. Leahy understand why he shouldn't support this bill.

QuestionCopyright.org doesn't normally focus on immediate legislative goals. Current copyright law is pretty bad, but our mission is to change the way people think about copyright, in the belief that legislative change will follow.

But every now and then, a proposed new law is so off-the-charts wrongheaded that it needs to be immediately shut down. U.S. Senate Bill S. 3325 is one such. Public Knowledge has a great summary of what's wrong with it:

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave the green light to S. 3325, the Enforcement of Intellectual Property Act of 2008. We need you to show them the red light, NOW! This intellectual property enforcement bill lets the DOJ enforce civil copyright claims and lets the government do the MPAA and RIAA's intellectual property rights enforcement work for them — at tax payers' expense.

The bill also needlessly bundles trademark protections with copyright restrictions, thus further confusing these two unrelated things in the mind of the public (and, no doubt, in the minds of many Senators). Identity protection is a fine goal, but it has nothing to do with copyright. Search the bill for the phrase "counterfeit and pirated goods" and you'll see immediately how these different concepts are repeatedly yoked together, with the effect that mere unauthorized copying is tainted with the stigma of counterfeiting. For example:

For purposes of this title, the term `intellectual property enforcement' means matters relating to the enforcement of laws protecting copyrights, patents, trademarks, other forms of intellectual property, and trade secrets, both in the United States and abroad, including in particular matters relating to combating counterfeit and pirated goods.

See the full text of the two proposed versions of the bill for details.

Public Knowledge has set up a very convenient web page from which you can call or fax your Senators (if you're a U.S. citizen) and tell why they should oppose S. 3325. Please, if you have ten minutes to spare today...

GO THERE NOW AND DO IT.

Thank you.

Can laws be copyrighted? Carl Malamud and public.resource.org say no...

seal of public.resource.org

Thanks to James Jacobs for sending in a link to the article "He's giving you access, one document at a time" by Nathan Halverson at pressdemocrat.com. It's about how Carl Malamud and public.resource.org are defying the state of California by — get this — putting California's laws online for public access.

You wouldn't think that would be a particularly controversial thing to do. In fact, you might even expect California to have done so already, and in standard, parseable electronic formats too (as per the Open Government Data Principles). But instead, California enforces copyright over the texts of its laws. Quoting from the article:

California asserts copyright protections for its laws, contending it ensures the public gets accurate, timely information while generating revenue for the state.

"We exercise our copyright to benefit the people of California," said Linda Brown, deputy director of the Office of Administrative Law, which manages the state's laws. "We are obtaining compensation for the people of California."

It's a great example of how copyright restrictions inevitably spread to new areas, without regard to the public purpose. The logic goes something like this: the law is a text; a text has value according to its usefulness; if a text has value, someone can make money by restricting who shares it and then charging money for a lease on that monopoly; the state always needs revenue; ergo, the state should restrict the spread of its own laws, in order to raise funds! The reasoning is bizarre, almost breath-taking in its audacity. And it leads civil servants to claim, with straight faces, that the state has an interest in denying people access to the text of the law.

What's most interesting is how clearly this case reveals the old relationship between printers' monopolies and copyright law. California justifies their copyright restriction in exactly the same way the English Parliament justified the first copyright law: that the public good is best served by profitable distribution, and that means supporting printers by giving them a monopoly.

Of course, that argument made a lot more sense in 1709, when there wasn't an Internet around to allow zero-cost distribution of public goods :-).

"Piracy Is Not Theft" graphic by Patri Friedman

Piracy Is Not Theft

Thanks to Jessica Ferris for sending in this great image by Patri Friedman. How much more simply can one say it? Copying leaves the original untouched, therefore copying is not theft.

It's interesting to read some of the commentary on Friedman's post. For example: "This seems like semantic hair-splitting. If I go to some sort of practitioner of whatever and walk out without paying, I haven't stolen anything tangible, just their time. Is it meaningfully different than if I'd reached into their wallet and removed $60 or whatever? I doubt they'd be any less cheesed off if I told them "actually what just happened wasn't technically theft, it was something else." [1]

Friedman's response is terrific:

It is not semantic hair-splitting. It is a simple, genuine, important difference. Your example indicates that you don't understand it, which I find weird:

"If I go to some sort of practitioner of whatever and walk out without paying, I haven't stolen anything tangible, just their time."

But their time is not a copy. It is irreplaceable. They will never get those moments back. Therefore what you have done is theft. If you used the public record to create an AI simulacrum of the practitioner, and consult the simulacrum instead of the practitioner, that is analogous to pirating the time of the practitioner. (You may be stealing the time of the simulacrum, but that is a separate issue).

The question is not tangibility. The question is whether, after I do ____, someone else then has less of something than they did before. If I "go to someone for their services, and don't pay them", they have less time than before. If I ask Google what I was going to ask the professional and so don't need their services, they haven't lost anything.

There is a comment relating copyright with trademark law (that's something that we see all the time; can we come up with an equally powerful graphic to show how they're unrelated?). And there's the inevitable comment reiterating the received theory argument, which says that without monopolies people won't be motivated to innovate. We really need to start countering that one with the point that a monopoly in a given field tends to suppress innovation in that field. And anyway, where's the evidence? If these monopolies are so necessary for innovation, then why is there no shortage of innovation where monopolies are not given (the fashion industry, say, or cooking).

But all these words don't match the eloquence of Patri Friedman's graphic. It's simple, memorable, and irrefutable.

And no, by the way, I didn't ask Patri Friedman before posting a copy of the image here. His whole point is that we shouldn't have to. We credit him and link back, of course, because credit is like time or money, in that when you take it from someone, that person actually loses something. Copying the image while still giving him full credit is exactly in the spirit of his post.

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