The Cato Institute has performed a terrific service for anyone interested in the future of technology. It has assembled a provocative, beguiling, and thoroughly engaging collection of essays on the law and policy of intellectual property.
Over the past few years, intellectual property has morphed from an arcane topic of interest mostly to academicians and patent attorneys to the stuff of newsmagazine cover stories. Courtrooms' klieg lights have illuminated how copyright law has been stretched in ways unimaginable just five years ago. Software patents have roiled the computer industry and alarmed developers of open-source programs. Meanwhile, displaying all the temperance of a methadone addict, Congress keeps handing more and more power to copyright owners.
The stakes are enormous. America's economic might, as Hollywood reminds us, arguably depends in large part on intellectual property law. But some of the entertainment industry's most cherished prizes, such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the No Electronic Theft Act, raise troubling questions about free speech and private property rights.
Other proposals—such as Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings' (D-S.C.) Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act—go even further and impose government-mandated regulations on the U.S. hardware and software industries. The justification: piracy will decimate vital industries unless content is secured in a kind of impenetrable lockbox that would put Al Gore's campaign pledge to shame. “A lack of security has enabled significant copyright piracy which drains America's content industries to the tune of billions of dollars every year,” Hollings says. “For example, the movie studios estimate that they lose over $3 billion annually.”
Hollings has a point. Speedy Internet links, improved compression techniques, and fatter hard drives have dealt harshly with traditional views of copyright. Tens of millions of file-swappers are thumbing