The Magazine

Pirates of the Future

Can intellectual property still be protected without invading privacy?

Jul 2, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 40 • By JAMES D. MILLER
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Conservatives unhappy with the current state of popular culture might welcome a piracy-induced decline in music and movie production. They should beware, however, because Internet piracy might soon strike books. As computer screen quality increases and e-books become more popular, many people will be downloading books. Internet piracy could threaten the market for the written word.

If piracy can’t be stopped, then government subsidies might be needed to make the commercial production of movies, books, and music profitable. Many types of intellectual property would then become like public parks: free goods subsidized by the government. This would change what kinds of products were produced. Movie studios would make movies to please the bureaucrats who distribute the subsidies, without regard for how much the American public enjoyed their product.

If government subsidies were not provided, then media companies might be able to profit only by selling product-related merchandise or embedding commercials in their content. A future Star Wars movie might revolve around whether a Jedi Knight could pass the Pepsi challenge. Of course, hacker pirates could deprive this film of its Pepsi revenue by altering the movie and digitally renaming the Jedi Knight’s task.

When Odysseus was returning from the Trojan War he faced a tragic choice. He had to sail past either Scylla, a beast with six snaky heads, or Charybdis, a whirlpool monster that swallowed ships whole. Odysseus chose to save most of his crew and went past Scylla, losing one man to each head.

The United States faces a similar dilemma in deciding what to do about Internet copyright infringement. There will be far-reaching negative consequences regardless of our choice. By necessity, our goal must be to limit the damage rather than find an easy solution.

James D. Miller is an assistant professor of economics at Smith College.