The Insanity of IP

Stephan Kinsella details just how much trouble one can get into because of IP laws. Please note that this doesn’t even include file-sharing:

In his paper Infringement Nation: Copyright Reform and the Law/Norm Gap, law professor John Tehranian explains how the normal activities (see pp. 543-48) of a typical Internet user–he takes an “average American, …take an ordinary day in the life of a hypothetical law professor named John”–someone who does not even engage in P2P file sharing–could result in up to $4.5 billion in potential liability annually, for copyright infringement. The acts include:

-having his email program “automatically reproduce the text to which he is responding in any email he drafts. Each unauthorized reproduction of someone else’s copyrighted text—their email—represents a separate act of brazen infringement, as does each instance of email forwarding….” (twenty emails in an hour: $3 million in statutory damages);

-distributing in his Constitutional Law class copies of three just-published Internet articles presenting analyses of a Supreme Court decision handed down only hours ago;

-absentmindedly doodling a sketch of the Guggenheim museum on a notepad during a boring faculty meeting, i.e. making an unauthorized derivative work;

-reading a 1931 e.e. cumming poem to his Law and Literature class, an unauthorized public performance;

-emailing to his family five pictures his friend took of a local football game–his friend owns the copyright;

-having a Captain Caveman tattoo and revealing it while swimming at the local university pool: violating Hanna-Barbera’s copyright by the reproduction and public display;

-singing Happy Birthday to a friend at a restaurant and recording it on his smartphone videocamera, an unauthorized public performance and reproduction of a copyright-protected work–as is the painting on the wall of the restaurant that is captured in the video footage; and

-reading on his email a magazine that itself has clips of interesting items from other publications, a contributory infringement leading to up to $7.5 million of liability.

Obviously, some of the scenarios are a little more far-fetched than others. However, the very first item is very concerning: copyright violations occur when you reply to an email?! Are you serious?

Now, I realize that a lot of people view the opposition to IP as simply a bunch of nerdy white guys wanting to get out of paying for music. And while this typecasting is undoubtedly true in some cases, it doesn’t change the fact that IP is a gargantuan monopoly system that presents a large number of problems for ordinary citizens who act in good faith. Most people aren’t trying to rip someone off by responding to their emails, yet the laws in place operate under this very assumption.
It is obvious, then, that something needs to change. You don’t have to support file-sharing to make a coherent objection to the current system. Given that the laws ensure that every American is a lawbreaker, a good response would be to simply say that certain things shouldn’t be given automatic copyright protection (like email replies, for example). Better yet, one could argue that copyright should be opt-in, which would minimize most people’s liabilities. There is simply no sense in having a system that makes everyone a lawbreaker in order to further the economics interests of an elite, politically-connected few.

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