January 3, 2005

January 3, 2005 | Commentary on Legal Issues

Copyright is Copyright is Copyright

If John Adams and James Madison were alive today, they surely would marvel at how swiftly information can be exchanged via the Internet. But they also would be alarmed, I believe, to see ordinary citizens using this extraordinary technology in growing numbers to shoplift copyrighted intellectual property. The Founders possessed, after all, a keen understanding of the threat this type of theft poses to a free society.

Property rights are not a novel concept. After some deliberation, our constitutional Framers signaled how important it was to protect intellectual property by instilling the concept in our nation's charter in Article 1, Section 8, with a provision authorizing Congress to "promote the progress of science and the useful arts."

So deeply did the Framers, in their founding document, embrace the concept of "progress" advanced through devotion to intellectual labor, that they mention it 24 separate times in the Federalist Papers.

As John Adams warned, "The moment an idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence." I fear that moment has come.


If thousands of books were stolen from libraries in a single day, school and library officials would immediately put heavy-duty security systems into place. Department store owners, by the same token, would hardly sit still if thieves were making off with armfuls of expensive clothing and jewelry.

Yet many otherwise law-abiding citizens appear to think there's nothing wrong with doing essentially the same thing when it comes to intellectual property. As if stealing isn't stealing if you can do it with a computer in the comfort of your home or office.

The truth is, there is no difference between shoplifting a DVD from a store and illegally downloading a copyrighted movie from KaZaa. Stealing intellectual property is just as wrong as the theft of "real" property.

And the vast majority of people use so-called "peer-to-peer" file-sharing networks such as KaZaa, Morpheus and Grokster to download music and movies illegally. An overwhelming percentage of the 500 million files being "shared" at any given time are copyright protected and thus owned by someone else.

Despite all the warning advertisements and the movie trailers, as well as new legal methods to download music and movies (such as you find at I-tunes or CinemaNow), wholesale thievery is still taking place. A whopping 4 million users still partake in this dirty little game every day. So what is the victimized industry to do? 


The movie industry recently took a bold new step to change the "so what" attitudes of so many. By initiating lawsuits against individuals stealing movies online, as well as revving up their public persuasion campaign, movie studios are taking a stand and making the message crystal clear: Stealing is stealing, and it must stop.

The cultural and economic value of creative films is undeniable. Today, the copyright industries are one of America's largest and fastest growing economic assets. They account for more than 5 percent of our gross domestic product, pouring $535 billion into the U.S. economy. The film industry alone provides 580,000 well-paying jobs.

But this awesome engine of economic growth is threatened by the explosive growth of high-tech petty theft. Smith Barney estimates that if something is not done, movie industry losses will exceed a whopping $5.4 billion by 2005.

If James Madison was right -- that "government is instituted to protect property of every sort," if this objective is "the end of government," and "that alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man whatever is his own" -- then these movie studios are just doing what any potential theft victim would do.

They are protecting property that is rightfully theirs.

Edwin Meese III, a former U.S. attorney general, is a fellow in public policy at The Heritage Foundation and chairman of its Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

About the Author

Edwin Meese III Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

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