Blocking creativity can (and will) backfire

Within 24 hours of President Bush signing a “good old boys” copyright bill, John McCain’s campaign is asking YouTube to review its take down policies when somebody complains of copyright violations. It is such a strange world in which we live.

The “intellectual property” bill signed by the President (“The Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act” WTF?) was paid for backed by the RIAA and MPAA and beefs up penalties against people who illegally download music and videos that, according to the legislation, don’t belong to them. This bill was passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate, which assumes both Presidential candidates approved.

This new law creates a “Copyright Czar” at the Federal level, adding a layer of bureaucracy in an area that needs clarification, not roadblocks. Penalties are now extremely stiff for violations, and it’s likely to produce the chilling effect on peer-to-peer distribution that the RIAA and others sought. It’s also likely to produce some horror stories in terms of victimization of the innocent.

As I’ve written dozens of times before, the music and motion picture industries need look no further than the mirror to discover why both industries are losing sales. They long ago killed the goose that laid the golden eggs and have been producing predominately crap ever since. Instead of righting that wrong, they’ve chosen instead to sue their customers, something so absurd that one wonders how they stay in business at all.

A previous legal attempt to protect these industries was the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which has been law for years. It sets forth rules for websites to protect themselves from these lawsuit-happy characters, including provisions for taking down offending content in an expeditious manner. Now John McCain, who voted for the DMCA, wants YouTube to examine its policy, because the site — as it has done since copyright holders first started complaining — is taking down campaign ads that use media footage or music (for which the campaign has no license) as soon as the copyright owner complains. If this weren’t so pathetic, it would be hilarious.

Folks, let’s face it; we need a complete overhaul of copyright law, where intelligent voices of reason have their say. Lawrence Lessig, for example, has been advocating such for a long time and wrote a brilliant op-ed piece (In Defense of Piracy) that was published over the weekend in the Wall St. Journal. If this topic interests you at all, I strongly recommend you read it.

This war must end. It is time we recognize that we can’t kill this creativity. We can only criminalize it. We can’t stop our kids from using these tools to create, or make them passive. We can only drive it underground, or make them “pirates.” And the question we as a society must focus on is whether this is any good. Our kids live in an age of prohibition, where more and more of what seems to them to be ordinary behavior is against the law. They recognize it as against the law. They see themselves as “criminals.” They begin to get used to the idea.

That recognition is corrosive. It is corrupting of the very idea of the rule of law. And when we reckon the cost of this corruption, any losses of the content industry pale in comparison.

Copyright law must be changed.

Somebody in John McCain’s camp is now dealing with some of the realities of legislation that McCain himself helped bring into law. If there is a silver lining in all of this mess, let’s hope this is it. I’m not holding my breath, however, because the pockets of the industries who cling to the status quo are not only deep but filled with the fingers of Washington DC.

(You can find the pro-torrent side’s view here.)

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