Welcome Your New IP Masters

It's good to know that when our country is threatened that our lawmakers will jump into action to protect us, leveraging resources and spending money to form giant new bureaucracies and establish White House-level positions to combat this major threat. What is this threat that Congress has put such a high priority on? Is it fixing our disaster preparedness so tragedies like Katrina don't happen again? Could it be a bulking up of our health system to protect the citizens against a possible pandemic? If you picked either of those options, or any other so-called commonsense threat, than you clearly have your priorities out of whack. No, this threat that the U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly chosen to battle against is copyright protections, anti-piracy measures and stopping those pesky college kids from downloading MP3s.

Jim RapozaIt's good to know that when our country is threatened that our lawmakers will jump into action to protect us, leveraging resources and spending money to form giant new bureaucracies and establish White House-level positions to combat this major threat.

What is this threat that Congress has put such a high priority on? Is it fixing our disaster preparedness so tragedies like Katrina don't happen again? Could it be a bulking up of our health system to protect the citizens against a possible pandemic?

If you picked either of those options, or any other so-called commonsense threat, then you clearly have your priorities out of whack.

No, this threat that the U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly chosen to battle against is copyright protections, anti-piracy measures and stopping those pesky college kids from downloading MP3s.

Now I'm not belittling the cost of real piracy; it does cost the economy money. But we already have strong laws in place that can place some pretty severe penalties against pirates and serious copyright infringements. We don't need another massive government bureaucracy dedicated solely to protecting the interests of a specific (and quite profitable) industry.

But this is just what the PRO IP act, which was just passed by the House, does. The PRO IP act (which stands for Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property) creates a White House position for an intellectual property czar and also the formation of an intellectual property enforcement division.

But to me the worst, and possibly most far-reaching, aspect of this bill is that it introduces property forfeiture into the picture for copyright enforcement. Reading the law, it certainly seems if a person downloads a movie or song that they could have their computer, or their employer's computers and network hardware, seized by the IP enforcement polizei.

And don't think that this is just limited to music and movies. After all, it's called the PRO IP Act, not the PRO Stopping Movie and Music Downloads Act. IP protections span across all industries, from hardware to software to manufacturing.

One only need look at some of the ways that the supposedly movie- and music-focused DMCA has been used to stifle legitimate competition. Imagine facing IP violation claims from a competitor and not just facing fines but also the possibility of having your computer systems or manufacturing setup seized by authorities.

Sure, this is a worst-case scenario. But if our experience with bad technology laws has proven anything it is that worst-case scenarios almost always come true.

Somewhat surprisingly, some of the forces that normally fight back against bad IP laws such as the PRO IP Act have been generally supportive of this bill. To a large degree this is because the original version was much worse, including the possibility of million-dollar-plus rulings against people for downloading one CD.

But just because the PRO IP Act is now a little less draconian doesn't make it a good bill. If someone is going to beat me up and eventually agrees to just break my nose instead of breaking my nose and my jaw, that doesn't make it a good deal for me.

While the PRO IP Act has passed the House of Representatives, it isn't law yet. The Senate will have to pass its own version of the law, and the Justice Department has been vocal in its opposition to it. Also, as it stands right now, the Bush White House has signaled that the bill in its current state could face a veto.

Which of course means that now is the time to let our representatives know that we don't need a massive new government program to protect the special interests of one industry while potentially limiting the legitimate rights of users and businesses. Especially when our current laws do just fine, thank you.