OK, this post is bound to be controversial. I will absolutely publish any opposing points of view, provided they’re civil. However, I get to moderate the comments, and won’t publish any that overstep the bounds of civilized argument.
This week we heard that a Boston graduate student, Joel Tenenbaum, will probably have to declare bankruptcy after a jury awarded the music industry $645,000 in damages because he had “willfully violated the copyright” on 30 downloaded songs. The court heard that the 30 songs were only the ones on which the music industry (which brought the case) focused, but Tenenbaum admitted on the witness stand that he had downloaded and shared more than 800 songs between 1999 and 2007.
Last month, a federal jury in Minneapolis ruled that Jammie Thomas-Rasset must pay $1.92 million, or $80,000 on each of 24 songs, after a similar conclusion.
Associated Press, which reported the case, said the music industry typically offered to settle such cases for about $5,000, though it has said that it stopped filing such lawsuits last August, and is instead working with Internet service providers to fight the worst offenders. Cases already filed, however, were proceeding to trial.
The jury awards are draconian, no question. And you have to feel sympathy for those singled out for prosecution. But I’m not sure the music industry had much choice here. Presumably they made an offer to settle, which was refused. At which point, there’s no alternative but to bring a case to trial – otherwise you might as well tell every defendant just to refuse to settle…
Once the accused makes the decision to put the matter into the hands of a jury, it’s a crapshoot – as anyone who has watched some of the more outrageous examples of damages awarded in US cases can see.
The music industry’s often painted as a collection of “fat cat evil megacorporations oppressing the innocent”. However, it was not the music industry which instituted international copyright law. The Berne Convention was adopted in 1886, at the instigation of French author Victor Hugo – to protect creative people. (As of December 2008, there were 164 countries which were parties to the agreement.)
Unfortunately, the ease with which digital data can be copied has spawned a generation which thinks everything is free – or ought to be. A type designer friend of mine has referred to this generation as Generation P (for Parasite). That’s a bit unfair; digital theft is not committed only by the young…
In my view, it’s not enough to work only with the Internet service providers to tackle this issue.
I’m all for the democratization of content creation and distribution which the Internet has brought about. Now anyone can be an author, a musician, a film-maker, a type designer, an artist. All the old barriers to entry – equipment, distribution chains, etc – are now irrelevant. But some people are better at it than others, and some want to make it their career. They ought to be able to make a living – a good living, or a very good living indeed – if they are talented enough.
So I support bringing cases of copyright infringement. All computer users need to learn that stealing a set of digital bits that contain the work of someone else is still stealing from the creator of the work, whether those bits represent music, video, a book or a typeface design. And theft should carry a cost.
“Pour encourager les autres”, as another Frenchman – Voltaire – said in Candide.
I wonder what Victor Hugo – whose novel, Les Misérables, highlighted the lives of the French urban poor, would have made of it all…