Thursday, April 12, 2007

Copyright infringement: a crime?

First: IANAL. The following is my understanding only. I am not a legal practitioner of any kind.

Copyrights are only useful because they are protected by law. If you infringe upon a copyright you are breaking the law. But what kind of law? Civil law is between civil entities (such as people or companies) and it is up to the injured party to bring a legal action. Criminal law is between the state and a civil entity and in this case the state will prosecute the case. If you break a civil law you can expect to pay a fine. If you break a criminal law you get a visit from the police, a criminal record and can expect to spend time in jail.

Until recently copyright was protected by civil law. If you make an unauthorized copy of my work I can sue you for compensation. Recently, laws have been created that make copyright infringement a criminal offense in some circumstances. This means that the police or other government agencies can come after you. For example, the Trading Standards office in the UK have become copyright police as reported by The Register here:

Trading Standards officers become copyright enforcers | The Register

It seems that many of the laws criminalizing copyright infringement are being introduced at the behest (via expensive lobbying campaigns) of large corporations and groups of corporations. Good examples of this are the US entities the RIAA and the MPAA who get very involved with the creation of legislation in this space. The big companies prefer being protected by criminal law because it saves them the time and expense of prosecuting. They simply have to point the finger and the publicly funded agencies (e.g. the police) will do all the hard work.

I can see that for large scale systematic copyright infringement criminal law may be appropriate. I am very uneasy, though, about criminal laws introduced to make it easy for corporations to make criminals and jail residents of individuals for downloading a couple of MP3s. If the corporations have their copyrights infringed upon it is absolutely their right to sue the infringer, but making infringement a crime in such cases seems to be unreasonable.

I hope we are not losing the "for the people" bit of government and replacing it with "for the largest wallet".

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