Recording Industry Slams Single Mom for File-Sharing

Last week, a jury determined that Jammie Thomas, a single mother living in Minnesota, should pay $222,000 to the recording industry for allowing other people to download 24 songs off her computer on a file-sharing system. That's a pretty steep fine for passing along a few copies of Britney Spears' latest hits.

The recording industry was apparently able to track down this crime by hiring a high-tech sleuth who has software that can monitor the files people place on their computers. No doubt, the recording industry's sleuth has been visiting a computer near you.

The recording industry has been having a difficult time adjusting to the modern world. Digital technology and the Internet make it possible to instantly and costlessly transfer recorded music, movies, videos, and other material anywhere in the world. While this is great news for consumers, and those who value freedom of expression, as well as writers and musicians who want their work to reach the greatest possible audience, these technological developments are really bad news for the entertainment industry.

The entertainment industry makes its money off of copyrights. It wants to be able to charge people to get music and movies and it can't do that if people can get it for free. And, they want the nanny state to make people pay them. That's why Ms. Thomas may spend the rest of her life paying a fine for allowing 24 songs to be shared with others.

This is not the first time the entertainment industry has gone over the top to try to enforce copyrights. A few years back, it had a Russian computer scientist arrested at an academic conference for presenting a paper that explained how the industry's encryption codes could be broken. It has gone into college dorm rooms and teenagers' bedrooms looking for evidence of unauthorized copies of recorded music. It has coerced colleges into having propaganda classes on the virtues of copyrights for incoming freshman (no doubt led by experts from North Korea). It has even prepared a new curriculum that seeks to indoctrinate kids as early as kindergarten in the merits of copyright protection.

It's long past time for a little reality check. Copyright dates back to 16th century Venice. It was a mechanism for allowing writers to profit from their work by giving them a state-enforced monopoly. It has continued since that time, with the state-granted monopoly being extended both in scope and duration. Copyrights now cover music, movies, video games, and a wide range of other material. The duration has also been repeatedly extended so that copyrights in the United States now persist for 95 years after the death of the author.

While copyrights do provide an incentive for creative work, they are an extremely inefficient mechanism for this end. It is most efficient when items are sold at their marginal cost. Economists generally get infuriated about the economic distortions that are created when tariffs of 10 percent or 20 percent are placed on items like steel or clothes. In the case of copyrights, material that could otherwise be transferred at zero cost, instead commands prices of $15 for CDs, $30 for movies, and even higher prices for other items, entirely because of the government-granted monopoly. For this reason, the economic distortions created by copyright dwarf the economic damage caused by other forms of trade protection.

There are many other mechanisms for supporting creative work, such as university funding (most professors are expected to publish in addition to their teaching), foundation funding, or direct public support. It is easy to design alternative mechanisms to expand this pool of non-copyright funding, such as the Artistic Freedom Voucher, which would give each person a small tax credit to support creative work of their choosing.

With the entertainment industry getting increasingly out of control, it is important that we start to develop better alternatives to copyright. We need to think of how we should support creative work in the 21st century and not let the entertainment industry drag us back into the 16th century.

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