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Drugs and Copyright: A Fable

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One of my favorite podcasts, Triangulation, featured in the latest episode an interview with the great John Perry Barlow–former member of the Grateful Dead (an innovator in viral marketing), IP opponent and activist for Internet freedom. (See his classic 1994 Wired article,”The Economy of Ideas: A framework for patents and copyrights in the Digital Age,” discussed here on the Mises blog; also in Cat-v: “The ‘intellectual property’ oxymoron”.) Barlow there observes that before the Internet and digital age, copyright “worked” (whatever that means) because it was hard to make copies: to print books, make tapes and LPs, etc. But that the mid 1990s, that all changed when it became easy and essentially costless to make perfect copies of such items. And that this is one reason copyright no longer works. The state is less and less able to easily police and regulate emulation and copying, because its nature has changed, so it responds by escalating its punishments and fines.

Of course, this will not work any more than the draconian sentences imposed for use or sale of narcotics will stop drug use. It occurred to me that envisioning changes in the area of narcotics similar to those that have occurred in the field of informational goods can help illustrate how absurd copyright law is in the digital age. At present, illegal drugs such as cocaine and marijuana are produced from physically grown crops by criminal syndicates, refined into consumer drugs, shipped at great risk to the western markets for these drugs, sold in shady transactions, etc., with individuals at all stages of this chain subject to severe punishment by the state. The state is able to interfere enough with various stages of the drug production and consumption chain to raise prices and drive it underground, and to sustain its own lucrative role in the everlasting “war on drugs.” This is somewhat analogous to the state copyright was in before the Internet, when “copies” meant physical objects like paper books, vinyl LPs, and the like.

Now imagine if some kind of change in the production of drugs occurred analogous to the transformation that has occurred with informational goods. Before, to make a book or audio recording, a physical good had to be produced; copying was laborious or expensive; middlemen and studios were involved. Now, it’s easy to copy books or songs, and the copies can be perfect; and the author or artist can increasingly avoid the studios and publishing houses. Now imagine that the field of 3D printers evolves to the point where narcotics and other drugs such as pharmaceuticals can easily be produced by a consumer, on his own, with a little “pharmaceutical printers” — in essence, millions of consumers could own little private narcotics fabricators. Not only would there be no middle man, there would be no supplier. No sales of drugs, no marijuana fields, no transportation and distribution networks. Sitting next to your laser printer/book binding machine, which you use to fabricate whole bound books on the fly, and your 3D printer, which you use to make little gadgets and items, you have a pharmaceutical printer. Sure, most people use it to make a cheap version of cough medicine and pain medicines, and cheaper versions of highly regulated and patent-protected prescription medications. But some would use it to generate narcotics.

In such a world, surely the bluenoses would be driven almost insane by the thought of their neighbors secretly being able to produce and consume drugs in the privacy of their own homes. But imagine how nearly impossible any enforcement effort in the drug war would be come. The drug war has already led to severe encroachment on civil liberties, but in the new drug-printer age the only way to make even a slight dent in the new private drug production and consumption practice would be to have ultra-invasive searches and seizures, constant monitoring of personal web traffic to detect when drug-printer “recipes” were searched for or downloaded over the Internet, and so on. Still, the drug war would be even more futile than it is now, and would cause ever more damage to people’s lives, homes, property, freedom, and civil liberties.

And this is exactly the position copyright’s war on information and knowledge finds itself in now. Penalties are ramping up, the law’s scope and term keeps expanding. Copyright propaganda is on the increase, with Big Brother warnings ominously imposed in unskippable warnings at the beginning of DVD and Blu-Ray movies, and public service ads in magazines and comic books and TV’s warning kids that it’s “not cool to steal”. Western nations, as the home of the Big Film and Big Music and Big Publishing interests, are twisting the arms of other nations such as Russia, India, and China to adopt draconian Western-style copyright enforcement. At the same time, with the rise of torrenting and encryption, the attempt to enforce these laws becomes ever more futile. We can only hope its futility is recognized, and this relic of thought control and censorship of ages past is scrapped, before the Internet and our lives and liberty are ruined in the name of “intellectual property rights”.

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