Deputy Attorney General Trots Out All Sorts Of Silly Analogies About 'Intellectual Property'
from the guys,-stop-this dept
We’ve always had difficulty understanding why copyright or trademark law should even have “criminal” components to them. It seems fairly obvious that they can be handled easily enough with civil actions, without involving law enforcement. And this matter is only reinforced every time law enforcement tries to get involved in copyright and trademark enforcement. They seem oddly… almost unable to comprehend that infringement is different than theft and that it requires a different thought process and analysis. Time and time again, we see this crop up, both in the US and around the world. And it remains consistent no matter who is in charge. Under Obama, the DOJ was terrible on intellectual property issues, and that’s now carrying over to the Trump administration.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein just gave a talk at the Interpol International Law Enforcement IP Crime Conference — which, as you can imagine, is not a place where nuanced discussions on infringement are expected. And Rosenstein lived down to low expectations in delivering a speech full of silly analogies and misleading statements that show little understanding of the deeper underlying issues when it comes to copyright, trademark and patents. It starts out with a particularly silly analogy:
As a child, I learned a fable about a hen that finds some wheat grains and asks other animals for help in planting them. Nobody is willing to help, so the hen does the work itself. At every stage of the process – harvesting the wheat, threshing it, milling it into flour, and baking the flour into bread – nobody wants to help. But when the work is finished, everyone wants to eat the bread.
Modern intellectual property is more complicated than baking bread, but the same fundamental principle applies. If we let some people steal things without compensating the people who produce things, the incentive to create new things will be lost.
Huh? The famed Little Red Hen story isn’t about “letting some people steal things without compensation.” It’s got nothing to do with that. But, already we’re off on the wrong foot as Rosenstein has leapt to a misleading understanding of intellectual property issues in the first place — comparing a finite resource with an infinite one, and falling back on a silly — and legally incorrect — claim of “stealing.”
Similarly, “the incentive to create new things will be lost” is a familiar trope, but one that is simply proven wrong time and time again by history. As we’ve noted, over the past twenty years or so, even as the internet has enabled ever greater piracy, it has also created an astounding revolution in new content production. The problem is that so many people assume — incorrectly — that the “incentive” for creation is getting the copyright, patent or trademark, rather than the many other incentives. Many of those other incentives do involve making money, but not necessarily by using intellectual property law to do so. And for many, it’s not the monetary incentives that drive creation at all. Arguing that infringement decreases incentive to create is simply not borne out by history. It shows a level of ignorance that is disappointing, if not surprising, for a top DOJ official.
Intellectual property enforcement assures innovators and investors that when they devote time and money to develop new concepts and products, they will reap the financial rewards.
No, it doesn’t, actually. There is no guarantee that anyone reaps any financial awards. It’s not a system of welfare for creators. And, even if you make the argument that the laws themselves help structure a business model that allows the holders of the copyright, patents and trademarks (not necessarily the creators of the underlying works) that still has nothing to do with criminal enforcement. And, again, there are many, many business models that don’t rely on copyright, patent or trademark law to “reap the financial rewards.” Insisting that those are necessary is short sighted and misleading.
If governments fail to protect intellectual property rights, the immediate consequence will be monetary losses to individual property owners.
Not necessarily. This assumes that any infringing copy is a lost sale — a myth that also is rarely supported by evidence.
But the long-term impact will be less investment of time and resources, and fewer innovations for society at large.
Another myth, not supported by actual data. As we noted above, even as internet piracy increased, so did the development and output of content.
This conference represents an ongoing commitment by law enforcement, industry partners, and other stakeholders from all over the world to come together and identify ways to protect intellectual property and the industries that fuel the modern global economy. These protections are critical to almost every sector of the economy, from new, life-saving drugs and medical techniques that allow us to live longer and healthier lives; to computers and software that run the devices we use to navigate the airplanes and trains and taxi cabs that brought us here today; to applications on the smartphones we use to purchase coffee.
The thing is, many in the tech industry don’t want the DOJ getting into their business. They don’t need “protection.” They just want to innovate. The people making apps on smartphones these days are often the ones leading the charge against over aggressive enforcement of IP laws. Yet, here, Rosenstein is pretending that he represents their views.
One of our challenges is that intellectual property crime does not look like traditional crime, where the perpetrator takes a physical item directly from the victim. Everybody understands that it is wrong to walk into a business and take property without permission. In contrast, the individual act of downloading a movie from a file-sharing site, or buying a cheap knockoff of a name brand item, may seem harmless. But the accumulated economic loss from thousands or millions of those illegal transactions can destroy legitimate businesses, eliminate the incentive to invest in innovation, and undermine the rule of law.
It doesn’t look like traditional crime because it’s not traditional crime. And in many cases it seems harmless because it is harmless. Clearly, that’s not true in all cases, but in many, it is. Many people downloading a movie would never pay for it in the first place. There’s no economic loss there. Many people buying a cheap knockoff brand item, would never buy the full price item. There’s no loss there. In fact, multiple studies have shown that when it comes to knockoff goods, the purchase is often an aspirational purchase. That is, they know they’re buying a fake, but they buy the knockoff and end up buying the real version later, when they can afford to. In other words, knockoffs and copies often act as cheap or free marketing for more expensive products.
But Rosenstein can’t even consider that as a possibility. Rosenstein’s piece goes on in this vein for quite some time, and at some point there’s no use debunking each and every point. The problem here is really the simplistic “law enforcement” mindset that insists that infringement is theft (it’s not) and that any infringement must be bad (even though it’s not) and damaging to society (even though it’s not). Is it really too much to hope for officials who can actually understand the nuance related to these issues?