January 3, 2005
By Edwin Meese III
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune Wire
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.
Edwin Meese III
Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus
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